Opinion: Is Tor really easy enough for everyone?

In an attempt to grow the Tor network and improve public privacy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently ran the Tor Challenge. While the challenge is more interested in building up the infrastructure that makes Tor work, EFF published a promotional piece entitled, “Tor is For Everyone: Why You Should Use Tor.” I wondered, is it really?

Now, I’ve used Tor before and frequently use it for casual browsing, but I’m the editor of GeekSided. I’m probably not the most representative person for proving whether or not it really is for everyone. To look at this differently, I followed the install process for the Tor Browser Bundle and kept an eye out the entire time for potential pitfalls for relative novice users.

But first, what is Tor?

Before going any further, Tor has nothing to do with torrenting. In fact, torrenting is one of the few things you can’t do with Tor. Semantics might be one of the least user-friendly aspects of Tor, considering its similar spelling to the more familiar torrent.

The purpose of Tor is to hide the origin of Internet traffic. A simple description would be that your request to load a given website goes through a maze of what are called “relays” before reaching the destination server. Relays are computers and servers that participate in the Tor network. The website you asked to load will only know the “exit node,” which is the last relay your request came from, rather than your own IP. Since lots of people will be going through a given exit node, it is very difficult for someone to track down the real origin of the web traffic heading out of the exit node.

The data that the web site sends back will also come back through the Tor network, through that same maze of relays but with a different, randomly generated route through them. The randomness ensures that nobody can track you through the network. Here’s a slideshow by the Tor Project to illustrate:

The design is to enable web surfers to have some control over their identity while also securing the transport of web traffic from snooping by governments, hackers, or any other unwanted parties. By and large, you won’t be able to hide the fact that you are using Tor, but you will be hiding who it is that is using Tor.

This graphic from the EFF shows what kind of information will be available to various parties throughout your browsing data’s journey through the Tor network and public Internet. The graphic assumes that, for now, you’re using a non-encrypted (indicated by http:// in the address bar) connection:

You can see that Tor isn’t perfect; there is a vulnerability between the exit relay and the website you are communicating with. This is better than the entire communication being vulnerable, which is how it would be if you weren’t using Tor in this situation. Connecting via HTTPS or using a VPN takes care of that final vulnerability. This is why the default setting of the Tor Browser Bundle is to have EFF’s HTTPS Everywhere extension enabled.

Why bother, though? Who uses this?

Many people stopped needing convincing as the public became more aware of the worldwide spying activities of the US and other governments starting around a year ago.

We place this trust in our governments that they will use proper discretion, as dictated in the applicable laws, in violating privacy. So despite the potential for a loss of privacy, many of us did little to patch those “holes” since they were only likely to be exploited by a law-bound government.

Oops. The NSA became the best example of the desire for information-gathering run amok. First we learned about over 100 million people’s phone records being collected. Then, with the disclosures about programs such as PRISM and XKeyscore, we learned that even low-level NSA staffers can access “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet,” including initiating live wiretaps of this information with little difficulty. This is all done with no warrants when the NSA claims it is looking for foreign nationals or what closely resemble general (not specific to a person, place, or event) warrants that are issued through secret courts.

Beyond what the NSA has tried to legally justify, there have been known instances of NSA employees spying on their lovers using the powerful surveillance tools at their fingertips. The British spying organization, GCHQ, snooped on a disturbing amount of Yahoo-hosted webcam chats (basically, all of them over a given stretch of time). They remarked internally on a curious problem:

Unfortunately … it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.

Who knew?!

The Tor Project, the EFF, and various advocates have painstakingly sought to describe the kinds of people who use Tor, so I will chiefly borrow from them. Click the links in the previous sentence for more details. Let’s start by looking at reasons normal people use Tor:

  • Protect themselves from corporate tracking. There are several parties with an interest in learning as much about you and what you do on the Internet as a means to sell that info for a variety of purposes, most frequently advertising. This includes your Internet service provider (ISP) who can collect everything you do without Tor and various websites like Google who will try to build an ad profile on you based on your search history and use of their services. This can be done in part just with your IP address, which is concealed by Tor.
  • Protect children online: children don’t understand privacy well. They often will follow your directions about talking to strangers and the like, but they don’t see the forest for the trees. This helps prevent some of the unintentional leaks of privacy they could run into.
  • Learn about sensitive issues without raising red flags or alerting friends, acquaintances, and employers. Countless topics could seem suspicious to surveillance groups, law enforcement, or snoopy friends even when they aren’t. If you are researching human trafficking, it wouldn’t be a leap for an outside observer to think you were participating. If you think you might have contracted herpes and you want to look into that, you might not want that info floating across your home or work wireless network.
  • Circumvent censorship. This is relevant in a variety of settings, from school networks to government-enforced censorship. Imagine being in Turkey right now and wanting to learn the truth about the protests going on there and the often brutal, authoritarian crackdown on protesters. You won’t learn about it on the government-approved media sources. When the local regime is willing to block essential communication services like Twitter, you might want Tor on your side before navigating to unpopular web destinations.
  • Speak out without fear of social/financial/political retribution. The Tor Project uses an example of a lawyer who handles a diverse array of clients and knows his or her strong political convictions would likely alienate some of them, despite his or her excellent services rendered to them. Therefore, with the help of Tor, that lawyer operates a blog completely anonymously to continue making a difference and being heard. You can imagine lots of things that could get you in trouble at work or among friends; too often online statements can be tracked back to their original source. Tor can help.
  • Public service. Maybe none of these things move you or affect you directly. Why use Tor, then? Because Tor gets stronger when more people use it. A higher load of traffic stresses the infrastructure, sure, but casual use of Tor destigmatizes its use. Too often, the use of a private service makes someone seem to be up to no good. There is strength in numbers. Web services should not ever feel compelled to block Tor connections, for instance, because that should separate the service from too many legitimate users. Using Tor for casual use helps those who absolutely need it.

This is my brief sales pitch to you that privacy is something that should be of interest to more than just law-breakers.
As for non-normal people, this has a variety of applications and I will again refer you to The Tor Project’s page on this subject. Journalists use Tor to research and to communicate with informants (who also use Tor). Activists and whistle-blowers (like Edward Snowden) use Tor to avoid interception. There are too many to list here. Perhaps most notable is that Tor is used by the military, who also created the technology for the same purposes it’s being used for today.

This is my brief sales pitch to you that privacy is something that should be of interest to more than just law-breakers. Our global society had its period of naiveté, but that time has passed. Tor isn’t the cure-all for privacy issues, but is a worthy safeguard measure for most people. That is, if it’s easy enough for “most people” to use.

But is it user-friendly? Can I get my parents to use it?

There is a saying that privacy and convenience are inversely related. That is, your convenience goes up when your privacy goes down. Likewise, measures to increase privacy tend to decrease convenience. It isn’t an absolute rule, of course. Does it apply to Tor?

I uninstalled my copy of the Tor Browser Bundle and went through the entire process of installing and setting it up for use for this little “experiment.” The point here is that I want to look for the “choke points,” or the steps in the process that are likely to trip up a typical Internet user or otherwise turn them away.

It all starts at the download page at The Tor Project. Nothing too noteworthy here, and we won’t dock them points for not being a widely known option; that isn’t the question. Clicking “download” on The Tor Project’s landing page takes you to a page that only shows you the Tor Browser Bundle, which is a plus. The browser bundle is a Firefox-based browser that comes primed for privacy and ready to run Tor automatically.

It’s the software that the vast majority of people interested in Tor should use so it’s great that they don’t distract with the other software that is for advanced users. You can tell they know what they’re doing by the URL, which ends with “download-easy.html.”

After downloading the .exe installer, installation was a breeze. Once double-clicking the downloaded .exe file, everything is pretty much analogous to a normal program installation for Windows. If our hypothetical user doesn’t know how to download files, they are probably in trouble to start with; that isn’t a “typical” user. If you want your potentially computer-confused parents to use Tor, you might have to take them through the installation process. Here are some screenshots so you know what I’m talking about when I say it’s easy.

Okay, pretty simple…

Loading…then done. Whew! That wasn’t hard at all. Now you’ll launch it like any other program and be greeted with this message:

This isn’t inherently confusing, as it is made clear which option you are supposed to select. Now, if this typical user has an atypical Internet connection, things will get more complicated. Luckily, there’s something about a typical Internet user that suggests they’ll have a typical connection. Most of the factors that would complicate the connection sufficiently to require manual configuration would be caused by someone consciously tweaking their Internet connections for privacy or other reasons that would suggest the user knows what they are doing already.

So you’ll click “connect” and see this:

You might not know what it means, but that’s okay, it’s just a prompt to tell you it’s loading. Whether or not the user understands what is happening is immaterial as it takes less than a minute to connect to the Tor network and it requires no special user input. Once connected, you get your familiar, pre-Firefox 29 browser interface with just a few exceptions.

Bonus points for this start page, since it answers all of the immediate questions somebody would have after installation:

  • Did it work? – answered by the congratulations.
  • Am I connected to Tor? – a link is provided to test whether Tor is working as it should.
  • What else should I do? – the What’s Next section refers you to information about safe browsing.
  • What can I do if I want to help this project? – the You Can Help section gives several options for helping The Tor Project.
  • What is this project all about? – The bottom lines of text explain that The Tor Project is 501(c)(3) non-profit and succinctly explains its aims and purposes.

The Tor Project has done a remarkable job of making this accessible to non-experts.
From here, it is possible to navigate the ‘net relatively painlessly and with relative safety. The fact that it employs the long-familiar Firefox interface should mean there isn’t much learning curve in terms of the browser’s basic functionality.

It’s really pretty great. The Tor Project has done a remarkable job of making this accessible to non-experts. I don’t have any qualms about recommending its use to just about anyone. With that said, it isn’t absolutely perfect.


The one that is most noticeable can be summed up with this:

Yeah, the whole process of directing your traffic from one relay to another to another, etc. makes things slower. It really isn’t that bad, but webpages that heavy with images or other features will have a noticeable hiccup in loading speed compared to whatever you are used to. Tor has come a long way in this regard and I don’t think this is a deal breaker whatsoever.

There are also a couple of potential complications that come along with the two privacy-oriented browser extensions that come bundled: HTTPS Everywhere and NoScript. NoScript, by default, prevents sites from loading any Javascript. Lots of sites do not work correctly without Javascript. The reason for blocking Javascript is because, in the wrong hands, it can wreak some havoc on your computer.

A website could send you malicious Javascript without it being very obvious that it has done so. You can turn off NoScript on a per site basis, if you want its features most of the time, or turn it off entirely (it can continue to give you protection against a few other nefarious things like clickjacking and cross-site scripting).

I’m privacy-aware and oriented and myself and get incredibly annoyed by Javascript blocking for this very reason. Novice users may not realize why web sites aren’t working right and the process of disabling NoScript every time it happens could be cumbersome enough to motivate them to go back home to their previous browser.

HTTPS Everywhere is admirable in its aim: it forces the browser to connect using the secure HTTPS protocol on all sites that have the capability. The time it becomes a problem is when sites load resources from third parties and the secure connections don’t work correctly. I notice this in particular when it comes to loading fonts. Here’s what GeekSided looks like in the Tor Browser Bundle’s default configuration:

Close, but no cigar. Web developers go through a great deal of effort to make websites look beautiful. GeekSided is a handsome site. It suddenly doesn’t look handsome when the fonts don’t load correctly, leaving us with a browser-default-font look. I found through extensive trial and error that the issue was HTTPS Everywhere and that the issue was the secure connection to “Google Services.” Our font is a Google Font, meaning your browser downloads it from Google when you visit the page to ensure compatibility across browsers and computers.

In the HTTPS Everywhere dropdown menu, you have to click on Google Services to tell the extension to stop trying to initiate a secure connection to it. HTTPS Everywhere doesn’t break webpages nearly as frequently as NoScript does, but when it does it can be hard to figure out the cause. Despite the tremendous security benefit, I might recommend disabling these extensions for the “typical Internet user.” Otherwise, the frustration and confusion could get to be too much.

Finally, there is that pesky little link under the “What’s Next” page. It takes you to a list of suggestions for safe browsing, since bad privacy etiquette online will undermine any benefit incurred by using Tor. It looks something like this, just longer:

You can see in the image that torrenting over Tor is a big no-no as it both really stresses the network and usually does not end with your identity being protected. Likewise, you’re advised not to use Flash. The web is getting closer and closer to giving up Flash, but the most notable downfall of non-usage of Flash is that YouTube isn’t 100% ready for non-Flash players yet. Unfortunately, Flash is inherently vulnerable to a risk of privacy and security issues so you shouldn’t use it when trying to conceal your location. Doing it once could jeopardize you for a long time, as websites will use Flash to download tracking cookies onto your computer that are not handled by your browser’s cookie protection and deletion scheme.

The browser further suggests not to open documents that you download over Tor. Word documents and PDF files often contain elements that ask the office or reader programs they’re opened in to report the IP address of the user back to a server. Since these programs are not the Tor Browser, you’re unprotected. You’re advised to shut off your Internet before opening these documents. I don’t expect that suggestion to be observed by many average users.

The services you use will bastardize your privacy.
Finally, the services you use will bastardize your privacy. This is why Google is not the default search engine in the Tor Browser Bundle. If you use Google, your searches will be tracked. This is one of the most sinister types of privacy invasions because our search history often tells the tale of everything we’ve done online. Signing into Google and searching will really blow any chance you had at privacy. The same goes for Bing, Yahoo, and pretty much any other mainstream search engine. Some people just won’t like having to abandon Google.

The default search engine in the Tor Browser Bundle is Startpage, which is great for privacy but not so much function. I’m not a huge fan because, in my opinion, it sacrifices functionality to the extent that I fear it will drive typical users back to Google and others. The second provided search engine in the browser, DuckDuckGo, is the one I suggest. You can change your default by clicking on the logo in the search bar:

I’d go as far as to say that…DuckDuckGo wins on its merits as a search engine alone.
I’ve mentioned DuckDuckGo multiple times on here and find it to be wonderfully full-featured and user-friendly while storing no user data related to searches or where they click to. I’d go as far as to say that for some people, DuckDuckGo wins on its merits as a search engine alone, regardless of its pristine privacy policy. I don’t know the reasons why Startpage is preferred by the browser’s developers, but my suggestion is to make DuckDuckGo the default.

Is it easy enough for everyone?

Yes. Despite the pitfalls, I still think it is easy enough for everyone. Given the world we live in, Tor is one of the best, easiest, and cheapest privacy measures a person can take. I think smart browsing habits and a VPN could be a sufficient surrogate, but I don’t see why all three can’t be the choice. Bravo to The Tor Project for making this available for free and doing it so well.

I challenge readers to give it a try and decide for themselves. Especially since I’ve pointed out some weak points and what to do about them, I think you should be able to have a good experience using Tor.

Let us know what you think in the comments!