Internet users throughout the world have signed up in droves for anonymity software that allows them to live and interact online without international governments being able to monitor their activity.
The Tor Project reported that the number of people subscribed to its service has doubled since June, when former National Security agency contractor, Edward Snowden, revealed that United States intelligence analysts were secretly tracking global internet activity. Short for “The Onion Project,” which implies of layers anonymity, Tor conceals a computer’s location and relays an individual’s messages, search queries, and other functions through a series of encryptions.
While the numbers have not been directly attributed to the NSA leak, the number of Americans using Tor jumped 75 percent between June 1, just days before the Snowden leak, and August 27, 2013. US citizens now make up 17.54 percent of the daily Tor traffic, making Americans the only nationality to surpass 10 percent of the networks’ user base.
Tor, while not impossible for authorities to infiltrate, does offer an extra layer of privacy with a complicated network of over 3,000 connection and redistribution points around the world. The influx of users also improves connections between users by facilitating a larger number of exit points, thereby making a individual activity harder to trace, according to The Daily Dot.
Many users on the community news and discussion site Reddit, however, warned that simply enlisting Tor on one’s computer is not enough to ensure complete privacy.
“It’s basically a browser. All you have to do is download it, extract and then start the browser,” wrote user Naya Daur. “Remember, though, Tor can help you achieve anonymity, but it can’t save you from stupidity. Don’t log into accounts that you log in from the clear-net and don’t give out personally identifiable information.”
Other skeptics wondered if the Tor Project is a plot by the NSA to identify Internet users who feel the strongest need to hide themselves. Tor has previously admitted that the US Department of Defense was one of its principal financial backers, with some estimating that as much as 86 percent of Tor’s 2010 budget came from the Defense Department.
That security conversation was on display earlier this month when the federal Bureau of Investigation was suspected of launching a piece of malware through Tor to identify and arrest a man alleged to be “the largest facilitator of child porn on the planet,” according to the FBI. Tor users quickly took to web discussion boards to wonder if the government’s Tor funding helped the FBI infiltrate the anonymous network.
That incident, along with statements from Tor’s own developers, revealed that while the service could provide a buffer against NSA surveillance, it was hardly a catch-all.
“Privacy is a concern, it just isn’t a mass market concern,” Hannett Hill, the owner of a web security company, told The New York Times when Tor was still in development in 2006, although his philosophy still rings true seven years later. “One of the big enlightenments that we had at a certain point is that people don’t want to buy security software. They want peace of mind.”