Recently, BoingBoing ran an article about how some librarians in Massachusetts were installing Tor software in all their public PCs to anonymize the browsing habits of their patrons. The librarians are doing this as a stand against passive government surveillance as well as companies that track users online and build dossiers to serve highly-targeted advertising.
It's an interesting project and a bold stand for user privacy. But the good news is that if you want to browse anonymously, you don't have to go to the library to use Tor. Connecting to the Tor network from your own PC is quick and painless thanks to the Tor project's dead simple Tor Browser.
What is Tor?
Tor is a computer network run by volunteers worldwide. Each volunteer runs what is called a relay, which is just a computer that runs software allowing users to connect to the Internet via the Tor network.
Before hitting the open Internet, the Tor Browser will connect to several different relays, wiping its tracks each step of the way, making it difficult to figure out where, and who, you really are.
While Tor is gaining a reputation as a tool for buying illicit goods online, the software has numerous legitimate uses. Activists masking their location from oppressive regimes and journalists communicating with anonymous sources are two simple examples.
If, like the librarians in Massachusetts, you don't have an exotic reason for using Tor, it's still a good tool to keep your browsing private from your ISP, advertisers, or passive government data collection. But if the NSA or other three-letter agency decided to actively target your browsing habits that's a whole different ballgame.
The easiest way to use Tor is to download the Tor Browser. This is a modified version of Firefox along with a bunch of other software that connects you to the Tor network.
Once you've downloaded the installer, you have two options: You can just install the software or you can check the installation file's GPG signature first. Some people like to check the installation file to make sure they've downloaded the proper version of the browser and not something that's been tampered with.
But checking the GPG signature is not a painless process and requires an additional software download. Nevertheless, if that's something you'd like to do, the Tor Project has a how-to explaining what's required.
Whether or not you've checked the GPG signature, the next step is to install the Tor browser itself.
For Windows, the Tor Browser comes as an EXE file, so it's basically like installing any other program. The key difference is that the browser doesn't have the same default location as most programs. Instead, it offers your desktop as the install location.
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