The Tor Project: Protecting against online monitoring

Many of our class discussions have circled back to the concern over the monitoring of our online browsing habits.  Some interesting points were raised about how new media and consumer sites can be used to track our online movements, which in turn, can be leveraged by marketers to build detailed user profiles and wage targeted ad campaigns.  And while this is not a new phenomenon–advertisers have been using media like television and radio to get ads out to consumers for decades–the specificity of the information gathering and the invisibility of it is something new.  This, I think, raises some important issues about digital literacy because how many of us are guilty of skipping over the user agreement section and just clicking on the opt-in box without bothering to read or fully understand what it really means?  It doesn’t help that these user agreements, full of technical jargon and legal language, are designed to be unreadable.  And because this tracking of our movements takes place in the background, it’s rendered invisible and isn’t something we tend to think about.

The echoes of this class discussion were on my mind when I stumbled upon The Tor Project, which is free software that can be used across a Mac, PC, or Linux platform to safeguard against network security and traffic analysis tools.  Basically, it’s designed to prevent online tracking systems  from gathering information about your location and browsing habits. Military and law enforcement use this to protect their communication and online intelligence gathering efforts.  Activists, journalists, and some businesses also use Tor to anonymize their browsing habits and protect information and sources.  Tor is supported by The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco based organization concerned about defending civil rights in the digital world.  They have an interesting section about online behavioral tracking.

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2 comments on “The Tor Project: Protecting against online monitoring

  1. These projects seem good, but how does a student surfing online (or I) know that such a site is safe? In the old days, there were adult school classes, a short-term community college class, or a beginning unit of a class that taught what was safe and what wasn’t. The TOR site and dotcom video seem legitimate, but I can’t see a real person or know who is more authentic than another. That could be a teaching point for educators to find authentic information or to help to make computer safety information a part of common knowledge. What do you think?

  2. Cheryl, I think you make an excellent point about scrutinizing online sources and organizations. We should all be a little skeptical when it comes to trusting our information or downloading any content from the web. It’s worth investigating questions about the how, why, who, what, and when drives a certain organization or product…I think this is also an important aspect of digital literacy to pass down to our students–to not be passive users, but to take a more proactive approach.

    One of the ways that I check on a website, online source or product that is unfamiliar to me is to run a quick Google search to find reviews. The added benefit of the smart search feature on Google lets me see the most popular searches conducted using my keyword (as I type). If the smart search is suggesting my keyword search with negative words such as scam, virus, etc, it’s an automatic red flag. The other thing I do is take a look at the website’s “about us” page to get an idea for the mission, history, and/or management. The Tor Project has one at https://www.torproject.org/about/corepeople.html.en that lists the organization’s physical address as well as key leadership. They are a legitimate 501(c) non-profit organization. Still, I think your approach is right; it’s better to analyze a new source/site critically before diving right in.

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