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Surveillance and Tor

In this video, Dr Philip Garnett from the University of York discusses Tor and the Dark Web.
Okay, so my name is Philip Garnett. I work in the York School of Management at York University. I lecture in information systems and my research is on, among other things, surveillance and big data, and how that relates to society. So Tor is essentially a means of communication on the internet. So it allows, or rather it makes it very difficult for a user – you as a user – to be traced directly back to you. And it essentially consists of a network of computers, and your traffic to a website is routed through that network and the destination that you are reaching is encrypted by multiple layers.
And at each point you visit a node in the network, a layer of encryption is removed, and that tells the network the next destination point. And ultimately you then reach the place you are trying to get to, but it’s very hard to go back from that to where the request came from so it’s essentially very… you can reach somewhere but they can’t trace you back through the network very easily.
So Tor is actually used for a multitude of different things: in the simplest cases it’s just a way of actually navigating
the internet as you normally would: so you can use Tor to access any website that is on the internet in the same way as you would normally, but obviously it gives you that anonymity; your access to that website isn’t necessarily very easy to attribute to you. So you can see that might be very
useful in certain cases: so for example, if you were visiting websites that were very critical of your government, and you didn’t want your government to find that out using surveillance or traffic analysis, then Tor is a way of protecting or maintaining your anonymity. Obviously that could then be used for criminal activities as well, so criminals could visit websites that would perhaps contain criminal material, and then their access would then be difficult to trace to them.
But you can also use the Tor network just to send messages to people, so you can see it as a way of transmitting messages anonymously, and that’s actually very useful for people like activists who need to talk to people outside the country in which they are active, or journalists, perhaps, who need to contact people outside the country that they are reporting from. And there is also some evidence that the security services use Tor to communicate with agents from the field, so it’s a way of passing messages that can’t be traced very easily. So the Dark Web is another feature of the Tor network and it actually normally refers to things called hidden services.
They are essentially computers that exist on the Tor network, but it’s very difficult to find their IP address or their actual location. And those computers can actually be used to host websites that can only be accessed through Tor. And that make them more… essentially more difficult to remove from the web. So because you can’t find the location of the computer it’s very difficult to take the computer down and therefore remove those websites.
So you can imagine that this has two potential uses: one is obviously for things like illegal activity, and the most famous uses of the dark web – or most famous in so far as the ones most reported by the press – are things like the Silk Road which is a website where you can purchase drugs or weapons; and then, obviously, there are a lot of websites that potentially distribute illegal pornography; but there are also a lot of very useful website on the Dark Web as well. So going back to the activism, a lot of activists use the Dark Web to get their message across; journalists as well.
And a number of newspapers operate things called dead drops, which are Dark Web websites where you… where people can safely deposit leaked material that they believe that people should know about. The question of whether Tor should be banned, or indeed the future of Tor in general, is actually quite difficult. We live in a world, or potentially our own society, where there is increasing censorship from freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and Tor is one place where it is possible to freely express yourself without fear of reprisal from governments. And that aspect of Tor is probably worth trying to retain.
However, of course there is this other side to the Tor network which is essentially a facilitator for some illegal activities, be it the sale of drugs or the distribution of illegal materials. So I think the question comes down to whether or not stopping those aspects – these criminal aspects of Tor (bearing in mind that criminals will always find somewhere to conduct criminal activity in general) – whether or not stopping that is sort of a price worth paying to kind of remove this place, where freedom of expression and speech is possible, from society, in a time where those kind of activities are being severely restricted.
Tor is a free software project for online communication. In this video, Dr Philip Garnett takes a look at Tor and how it can be used.
The Tor Project team describe the Tor network as:
… a group of volunteer-operated servers that allows people to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. Tor’s users employ this network by connecting through a series of virtual tunnels rather than making a direct connection, thus allowing both organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy.
Tor has received a good deal of negative publicity for some of the less salubrious corners of the dark web of hidden services to which it gives access. The project’s FAQ responds to this criticism:
Criminals can already do bad things… Tor aims to provide protection for ordinary people who want to follow the law. Only criminals have privacy right now, and we need to fix that.
Tor has many positive uses, including circumventing censorship and providing privacy and anonymity to people threatened with violence or domestic abuse. A briefing by the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology noted that “There is widespread agreement that banning online anonymity systems altogether is not seen as an acceptable policy option in the UK.”, while in the United States, where the American Library Association’s code of conduct asserts “each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received”, Tor nodes are now beginning to find their way into public libraries.
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