The New York Times announced that it would be experimenting with new secure communication and launching an alternative way for people to access their site. They are making the nytimes.com website available as a Tor Onion Service. For those of you who don’t know, Tor is free software for enabling anonymous communications. The name is derived from the acronym “The Onion Router”. Tor directs internet traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer overlay network consisting of more than seven thousand relays to conceal a users location.
The Times states:
“The New York Times reports on stories all over the world, and our reporting is read by people around the world. Some readers choose to use Tor to access our journalism because they’re technically blocked from accessing our website; or because they worry about local network monitoring; or because they care about online privacy; or simply because that is the method that they prefer.”
In order to access the site, users must download Tor, which is a browser designed to connect to the dark web. The dark web is a network of websites designed to be hidden from search engines like Google, for example. Once connected, Tor allows users to move about the web with some anonymity. The Times is quick to point out that this service is both experimental and under development. Certain features aren’t guaranteed to work, and implementation will come in waves. Logins and comments will be disabled until the next phase of their implementation.
Onion Services exist for other organizations, like Facebook and ProPublica. The New York Times Onion Service is built using the open-source Enterprise Onion Toolkit (EOTK). EOTK automates a lot of the configuration and management effort.
So why is the Times going this route? Well, as they point out – they have a lot of users from different parts of the world. If you live in a dictatorship, for example, you can’t access certain websites as they are blocked. What Tor does is allows you to stay hidden from the government. Further, Tor is useful for anyone who wants to keep their internet activities out of the hands of advertisers, ISPs and even websites. Which isn’t just a concern for those living in dictatorships, but perhaps even some people living in the United States.
Tor isn’t perfectly anonymous tho. The NSA, for example, can tell if you’re a Tor user and that makes them look at you a little bit more. Anonymity isn’t the same as security. It’s hard to hack into the Tor network, but your browser history is a different story. Which the NSA can get into a lot easier.
Should you even use Tor? If you’re an average person, the answer is no. But, like I said – if you live in a place that oppresses free speech, this isn’t a bad way to go. This feels a bit political in a way. It’s not overt, but it seems like they’re sending a message to heads of state who seem to want to block their citizens from accessing the New York Times’ website.