It’s been interesting weeks for those who have been thinking about online privacy and data protection and what does it mean in today’s hyper connected society. Although this is a multi layered problem - personal data can be collected at different network layers and in multiple ways- one of the most effective ways to protect our personal data is to use the Tor network.
When I tell friends and non so technical people that they should be accessing the web through technologies that are used to access the dark web, I’m often received surprised reactions, fear, confusion and even disgust. Although it is not hard to explain how Tor works and why is it used for illicit purposes, it’s been harder to explain why everyone should leverage Tor on a daily basis.
In a nutshell, the reason why you should use Tor is privacy, personal protection and economics. Yes, the technology that powers part of the dark web can be used for very good and legit purposes - as a matter of fact, the bulk of the traffic going through Tor is exactly that. But surprise, surprise: just like any other technology, it’s all about how it is put into use. So let me lay out why I believe using Tor is important for you and our society:
The first reason is that internet providers and governments have the tools and the will to track online behavior of users and citizens, respectively. This is a fact and it was demonstrated by the documents leaked by Snowden and Manning about internet surveillance programs carried out by the US and EU intelligent services. You may trust your government and thus not be concerned about the fact that your government is able to collect all your online activity - and of your families. Remember though, that the data is not only collected but also stored, and with the current volatility in the world, are we able to ensure that sensitive data about ourselves and our families will not be used against us in the future by some sketchy people that got to govern us? We do not need nor have to take that risk.
Another reason is essentially that our lives are more connected than ever. The danger of having more devices in our home connected to the internet is that it opens doors to surveillance and targeted attacks. Unfortunately there have been cases of attackers being able to speak to a baby through babycam which is connected to the internet.
Apart from those targeted attacks, the fact that we are more connected than even gives companies and corporations the capabilities to harvest more and more data about our private data. Where do we usually access the internet? Which websites do we use the most? What are our interests? Which services do we use? All this data can be easily harvested and ultimately put together to make a accurate profile of who we are. This data can easily be used for business purposes without our consent, discrimination and criminal purposes.
Technologies like Tor create a privacy layer which allows you to protect your online privacy and sensitive data leaks.
The 3rd point I’d like to make is economics. Using these technologies is basically making illicit data harvesting hard. So hard that it becomes nonviable to do so. It’s all about economics: if we all make it hard for attackers and companies to illegally gather people’s data, then it becomes just too expensive for them to do so. It becomes too expensive for companies like Cambridge Analytica to profile people’s based on their data in order to change the course of democratic elections. Or it becomes really expensive for rogue governments to spy on their citizens looking for opportunities to silent opponents. Same goes for those who are selling your data to the highest bidder. If enough people turn their privacy shields on, this business model will not be viable anymore. So it becomes almost an ethically and moral imperative to protect your personal data. Not only for yourself, but for a fairer and more secure online society.
If you are still not convinced and you still don’t see a reason why you nor anyone else should use technologies that hide user’s online activity, think about the journalists, whistle blowers, political dissidents, NGOs and other citizens at risk that use Tor to communicate and share information safely, without being traced by potential rogue governments or any malintended actors. In those cases, it is life threatening to use the internet without the privacy and security provided by Tor.