The Tor Project Eyes A New Browsing Model for Anonymous Surfing

by Ostatic Staff - May. 06, 2011

Even as Mozilla finds itself wrestling with sticky privacy and censorship issues raised by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security request to remove a Firefox add-on, the movers and shakers behind the Tor project--one of the primary resources for those who want to surf the web anonymously--are evaluating a new privacy-centric browser. Developer Mike Perry has put up a blog post discussing  dedicated browser bundles that do away with the familiar Torbutton, and seamlessly allow users to surf completely anonymously. There could be room for this highly differentiated browser model, despite crowding in the browser market.

We've written about Tor and anonymous web surfing many times. As PC World notes:

"For those who aren't already familiar with it, Tor (short for "The Onion Router") is a global network of servers that offers anonymous Web surfing by randomly routing traffic through multiple servers, thereby masking a user's true IP address. Currently, those who want to use Tor for anonymous surfing must install the Torbutton extension in their Firefox browser as well as additional Tor software. A toggle system allows users to surf anonymously or normally through Firefox, depending on whether they have the Tor software turned off or on."

According to Perry's post, though:

"I think we should completely do away with the toggle model, as well as the entire idea of Torbutton as a separate piece of user-facing software, and rely solely on the Tor Browser Bundles, except perhaps with the addition of standalone Tor+Vidalia binaries for use by experts and relay operators. The Tor Browser Bundles will include Torbutton, but we will no longer recommend that people use Torbutton without Tor Browser. Torbutton will be removed from, and the Torbutton download page will clearly state that it is for experts only."

Perry continues:

"I think the average user is horribly confused by both the toggle model and the need to install additional software into Firefox (or conversely, the need to *also* install Tor software onto their computers after they install Torbutton). I also think that the average user is not likely to use this software safely."

On the topic of safety, Tor is widely used by people in areas of the world that place restrictions on the Internet, because users want open access to the Internet and Tor's anonymity features can guarantee that. Using Tor incorrectly, though, can expose these users to arrest and worse in some parts of the world. 

Notably, Perry goes so far as to say "Several factors are forcing us in the direction of a short-term fork of Firefox." Is there room for a new dedicated browser (note that Tor already offers its browser bundles), forked from Firefox, that makes anonymity its number one priority in unprecedented ways? If it makes anonymous surfing more safe, then there probably is. Tor has a storied history among anonymity tools, and it looks like these steps may represent the next chapter in the Tor story.