Navy Project Allows Anonymous Browsing

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – While its applications might run counter to certain provisions of the Patriot Act, an open-source program originally developed by the Navy is being used to mask the identities of web surfers.

The application that became Tor was launched by the Naval Research Labs in 1996 as a means of allowing officials to search the web without having their identities revealed by way of IP or machine address. The program uses a function called “onion routing,” which sends data through three different servers, each partially invisible to the last and, allegedly, totally invisible to the next-to-last server.

Tor is currently managed by the Free Haven Project, a team comprised mostly of MIT alumni which aims to “deploy a system for distributed, anonymous, persistent data storage which is robust against attempts by powerful adversaries to find and destroy any stored data.” In other words, Tor employs a peer-to-peer model.

Tor’s capacity to provide faster routing is increased with the number of users connected to the system, because each user’s computer becomes a possible data router. Like the SETI at Home project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), founded in 1993, Tor originated as a government peer-to-peer project that was taken over by private or academic interests.

Tor, which is a free download for Windows, Mac and Linux users, can be used by students hoping to circumvent Internet content restrictions in schools, employers wishing to spy on employees or corporate whistleblowers desiring anonymity. In this regard its applications exceed its intended scope, but also leaves its future up to its users.