The Tor anonymity network is enjoying a massive uptick in popularity after two significant privacy-minded events took place earlier this month
First, there were the sudden shutdowns of Lavabit and Silent Circle, two secure email providers that voluntarily closed their doors on Thursday, August 8, rather than allow the U.S. government access to their users' messages.
On August 10, mere days after Lavabit and Silent Circle took one for the team, the popular Pirate Bay file-sharing site released its PirateBrowser, a web browser that allows users to hop onto the Tor network in order to circumvent government firewalls to access torrent sites and other banned parts of the Web.
By August 18, the number of users accessing the Tor network started creeping up, and it has only climbed higher and higher (and higher) since. Tor now regularly sees more than twice as many daily users as it did before the email shutdowns and the PirateBrowser's release.
Tor's daily users skyrocketed just after Lavabit and Silent Circle shut down.
Differences between Tor browser and the PirateBrowser
While the PirateBrowser and standard Tor software both rely on the Tor network, they use it in very different ways.
Once you've installed Tor's software on your PC--most often in the form of the Tor browser bundle--the service allows you to surf the web anonymously by encrypting your Internet connection requests and bouncing them between numerous "relay nodes" before finally sending them on to the final destination.
No node knows the identifiable information of any nodes in the chain aside from the ones they're taking information from and passing information to and., just to be on the safe side, each hop along the way gets a whole new set of encryption keys.
"The idea is similar to using a twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you--and then periodically erasing your footprints," explains the Tor website. All the hip-hopping makes for a very secure (yet very slow) browsing experience, assuming you're smart about your usage habits. It's also great for bypassing government firewalls.
Tor's "onion-routing" technology also enables the creation of "hidden services," or websites that can also hide their server identity from its users and are only accessible while using Tor. This extreme level of anonymity makes the so-called "Onionland" darknet a haven--not only for seedy types, but also for people who want (or need) to stay anonymous, such as political dissidents and whistleblowers--the type of people who may have relied on Lavabit and Silent Circle previously.
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