Q&A: Privacy and anonymity with Tor

Andrew Lewman is executive director of The Tor Project, a non-profit organization providing research and free software that protects your online privacy and anonymity. He is a strong believer of individual rights, privacy, anonymity, and solving real-world problems – sometimes even with technology. In this interview he discusses the Tor project.

Tor is all about privacy. Would you recommend it to every computer user? Has the time come when we should be very worried about our online activities being “recorded”?
We recommend Tor for anyone that understands why they want to protect their privacy or anonymity online. The time has past for worrying about it, as the online tracking/recording horse is out of the barn and over the mountain range by now. There is a myth of anonymity on the Internet, that by hiding behind an IP address, no one knows you’re a dog. In fact, many places know exactly what you’ve done, where you’ve been, and have built a database of knowledge about what you do on the Internet; all without ever asking you a single question.

There are advertising networks, data aggregation sites, search engines, social networking sites, and last but not least, your own ISP that collect data about your online habits. All of these may work together to build a better picture about who you are online. Again, all of this is done passively without your knowledge nor permission. Tor is designed to give you, the user, back some control as to what you reveal to whom.

Since Tor provides anonymity, potential users may wonder if running such a piece of software is legal in their part of the world. What can you tell them?
As far as we know, and have been advised, running Tor is not illegal anywhere in the world, except for maybe Burma and North Korea. However, your local legal representative can give you a more nuanced view of your laws.

How many developers are involved in the development of Tor? How are they organized?
Tor is comprised of 8 full-time staff with a handful of dedicated volunteers helping us. There are another 2000 or so volunteers who run the Tor network by enabling others to relay traffic through their Internet connections. Tor is a virtual non-profit, with official offices in Massachusetts, but staff and volunteers scattered all around the world.

In your opinion, what aspects of Tor need more work? What can we anticipate to see in future versions?
We published a fine 3 year roadmap, designed to invite anyone to help us however they can do so; whether it be financial donations or code, we’re happy to have the help.

We’ve spent the past few years working on ease of use. It appears we’ve accidentally succeeded! We’re now outstripping the capacity of the network to handle the estimated 300,000 daily users. Our main goal for the next 18 months is to scale tor to millions of daily users. Many of these decisions are highly technical and can be found in our published Performance Roadmap.

The top three highlights should be:
1) Dramatically faster Tor network;
2) More work on ease of use for the less technical user; and,
3) Tor on mobile phones, such as the Android, iPhone, or Nokia based smartphones.