Thanks to the now infamous disclosure of Edward Snowden, Americans today have a much firmer grasp on how much of their online activity is cataloged in vast governmental data servers.
Some 500,000 daily users have turned instead to a different sort of online activity: anonymity.
Project Tor is one of many organizations that offer layered encryption to its website. Officially known as The Onion Router, a play on the several layers of encryption undertaken by the soft- ware, the website was originally built by the US Naval Research Laboratory for more secure inter-governmental communications.
By sending a user's information through several layers of encryption and rerouting information all over the world, the program makes it much more difficult for anyone to track a user throughout the web. While its slower connection speeds can disable videos and Adobe software, Tor provides a means for individuals in repressed countries to communicate without the burden of government eavesdropping.
The program requires a one-time download from torproject.org.
Tor sends data through thousands of nodes, or computers specifically set up to reroute information and mask the source of the connection. The more nodes Tor has, the more user capacity is available.
According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, the last node in a user's connection is the most dangerous, as whoever owns that computer can then be found by authorities. In more than a few cases, law enforcement has questioned node-computer owners, as any and all Tor data will appear to be coming from that computer even though the owner has no control or knowledge of what may come through.
"The key to all privacy, not just online, is control over what you share with whom. Online this becomes much more difficult, and thus much more important, because there are automated ways to force you to share more information than you might be comfort- able with unless you've explicitly shut them down," said Kevin Nolan rising senior in jazz studies and computer science said.
However, the nature of the software makes it so that no one, not even Tor, is able to reveal a user's location, even to authorities. This anonymity has also allowed for the rise of numerous hidden services, websites that would likely be shut down if hosted in a public place. Instead, hidden service websites are hosted anonymously, meaning that only the creators of the site are able to shut the site down.
Silk Road, one of the many sites only accessible through the Tor network, creates a sort of Amazon.com for the black market. Though forbidding the exchange of child pornography and assassinations, Silk Road permits all manner of illegal drugs, books for breaking into ATMs and fake IDs.
While Tor Project in no way condones this use of its software, it is not in a position to stop it either, and sees the benefits far outweighing the harm.
"Tor aims to provide protection for ordinary people who want to follow the law," Tor states on its website. "Only criminals have privacy right now, and we need to fix that."
The site also points out that dedicated criminals possess far greater capabilities thanks to the bounty of elite hacking software that goes beyond the promise of anonymity.
"We write tools to let people all around the world change the world in the way they think their world needs to be changed," Tor programmer Roger Dingledine said in a 2011 lecture entitled 'How Governments have tried to block Tor."
Tor was originally released in 2003 and today receives 80 percent of its $2 million a year budget from different facets of the US government, as it is a very useful tool for dissidents around the world to protect themselves from their government.
Another option for web-protection is Tails, a program that creates a downloadable alternate operating system exclusively for browsing the web. As computers still interact with the web in ways besides a browser, Tails allows one's computer to run all of its data through the Tor network, creating yet another level of security. The website, found at tails.boum.org, is also free to download and leaves no trace of the program when it is disconnected.
Tor Project is actively blocked by several countries around the world, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait all block direct access to Tor, with some claiming it is an unsafe website.
According to Tor itself, however, the software is widely used by activists to stay anonymous as well as law enforcement who need to avoid being seen to use a police IP address.
In addition, the use of anonymity-enabling software can protect all kinds of whistle blowers, from those in the United States, to China and Africa. Social activist groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Global
Voices have used or recommended Tor for breaching governmental firewalls and anonymous blogging.
Tor does not require technical skill to install or use, however, it does come at a cost.
"I think Tor is a wonderful thing, but it's not for everyone. There is a tradeoff: internet speed for internet anonymity. When your internet query is going through nine nodes before reaching Google,speed has to suffer. For everyday browsing,I find it to be a bit overkill," Nolan said.
There are many ways to stay safe online, but ultimately the choice is up to the user whether or not to make the choice.
"The internet was never designed to be private in the first place - the anonymity of the early internet was a side-effect of its infancy as a technology...However, I do think that there will always be ways to maintain anonymity on the web for those who want it," Nolan said.