Until very recently, Tor was always something I heard about online but never used. I never considered myself enough of a “hardcore” geek to really pursue it, but it turned out to be much simpler to use that I thought. So for those of you that were like me consider this a crash course in Tor for the Mac.
What is Tor?
Tor protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world: it prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, and it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location.
As its icon implies, Tor acts like an onion in the way that your online traffic is protected. If someone wanted to track your online activities while running Tor they would see only the layers and layers of relays run by volunteers worldwide. Due to the large number of relays, the original source of the traffic (you) is virtually invisible.
Although people are quick to associate Tor with illegal online activity, many other people and organizations use Tor for legitimate, and often life-saving, activities. For example, journalists in certain countries where honest reporting is punishable by prison or death can use Tor to publish their stories anonymously. According to torproject.org:
A branch of the U.S. Navy uses Tor for open source intelligence gathering, and one of its teams used Tor while deployed in the Middle East recently. Law enforcement uses Tor for visiting or surveilling web sites without leaving government IP addresses in their web logs, and for security during sting operations.
Hopefully you can begin to see the advantages of having a service like Tor and the hundreds of people who volunteer their computers for relays to help protect the privacy of the rest of us. Visit the overview page of torproject.org for a great set of illustrations created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on how Tor works.
A Brief Warning
Having educated myself over the past few weeks on how Tor works, I should take a moment to tell you that Tor is not magic. Once you drag Tor into your Applications folder you are not suddenly protected from the world. You will need to establish some new habits and tweak your software (Firefox) in order for Tor to work correctly. Please read these warnings before you start using Tor to ensure that you have everything configured correctly. The last thing I want to see is for one of our TAB readers write a blog post critical of their government and find themselves in jail because they thought their Internet traffic was anonymous.
That being said, setting Tor up correctly is not that difficult. Is my mom going to be able to use Tor? Probably not. But my wife, who uses our Macs only for iPhoto, email and Facebook, would be able to set up and use Tor without a problem. This means if you’re savvy enough to have found this post, you have enough skills to run Tor. So, let’s talk about how to get started.
Visit the download page and install the latest stable version of the Tor bundle. The bundle includes Tor, Vidalia (GUI for Tor), Torbutton (Firefox extension), and Privoxy (filtering web proxy) — all pre-configured to work together.
This neat little package is why Tor is simple to use. If you had to download and install each of these pieces individually, this post would be 10x as long.
The next step is to configure your applications to work with Tor. As I mentioned above, it’s not enough to install the Tor package — you’ll have to spend an extra 5 minutes getting your applications ready. For most of you, the main application you’ll be using with Tor is your browser. Installing the Tor bundle will also install a Firefox plugin that will allow you to easily turn on/off Tor with the click of your mouse. That’s all there is to it.
You can also run other applications with Tor such as your IM client — anything that supports HTTP proxies. Simply change your proxy settings to point to localhost port 8118 and Privoxy (in your bundle) will do the rest.
Once you’ve configured your applications, visit check.torproject.org to see if Tor is installed and working properly. If for some reason it’s not working, start by making sure that Vidalia is running and that you have clicked the “Tor Disabled” button in the lower-right corner of Firefox to enable Torbutton. If Tor is still not working, then your most likely culprit is a firewall. See this FAQ for firewall configuration information and this FAQ for general tips for getting Tor to work.
If you’ve received a clean bill of health from check.torproject.org then you’re free to browse anonymously. See? That wasn’t too painful was it? However, since the network depends on volunteers to make the service stronger and more secure I recommend reading the Relay Configuration Guide and making the necessary changes to allow others to use a portion of your bandwidth to stay anonymous.