The Kill Chain is the cybercrime thriller from Scotland’s newest writer, GJ Scobie, which will be published by Darkstroke on the 16th July 2022. This blog post is one in a series called Facts behind the Fiction, in which I take an aspect of the plot and provide factual background material, giving an insight into the real world of cyber security and those who work tirelessly to defend our networks and data.
So, what is TOR?
In cyber security, we like our acronyms. TOR stands for The Onion Router. That’s probably not much clearer as an explanation. Essentially it is free software that gives the user anonymity when browsing on the internet. The traffic generated by accessing the web is directed through a network of other computers, known as relays, around the world freely running the software. It is designed to protect a users location and their browsing behaviour.
It has been developed over many years, originally coming out of the United States Naval Research Lab with the view of protecting communications in the mid nineteen nineties. It is now run by the TOR project, a non-profit organization researching privacy and staying anonymous on the web. Using TOR makes it far more difficult to pinpoint a users IP address or location and what they are accessing on the way.
It is used by different groups for different reasons. Activists and journalists in countries where censorship is an issue; military and police to protect personnel from compromise; governments spying on others; others who simply wish to avoid web site advertisers and having their data scraped and sold on. Many people have good reasons for wishing to stay anonymous on the internet.
As with many inventions over the years, they can be used for good or bad. The internet is no different. There are huge benefits in the online world, with access to knowledge and the ability to connect people, but there are downsides too. The use of anonymity is also attractive to criminals. TOR can be used to hide web sites which can only be accessed via the TOR network. This is known as the Dark Web, a collection of sites dealing in all manner of illegal activities and services. I would advise not to go browsing for such marketplaces if using TOR and stay well clear of any interaction with them.
Is it secure? That’s a good question. Generally yes it is. Of course, humans make mistakes and there are far easier targets in respect of the devices and the software that is run on them for criminals to target and compromise users. Many of the illegal sites operating behind TOR have been shutdown by law enforcement.
Next time, fiction versus reality. The challenge of writing cybercrime.