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Facebook Gets Deep (Web)

Tor may be something generally associated with the ‘deep web’, but now Facebook – a site that is anything but private, seemingly broadcasting anything from your most embarrassing Friday night pics to your data – has opened to Tor, meaning that if you want to use Facebook through the Tor software you can do it without being kicked out. Whether it’s actually worth all the hype though, is still up for debate.

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Facebook has previously flagged users on Tor as hackers, because to them it looks like they are logging in from unusual places; ever tried to log in from a new device or location and had to identify a billion friends (often – helpfully – on pictures that hide their faces) before you could log on? Well, imagine it doing that every time you try to log in with the anonymity software.

The social media Megatron now says: “To make their experience more consistent with our goals of accessibility and security, we have begun an experiment which makes Facebook available directly over Tor network at the following URL: https://facebookcorewwwi.onion/.”  (Heads up: this link will only work if you’ve already enabled Tor in your browser.) Oh and FYI – they’re still working on the mobile-friendly version.

The responses so far seem mixed, with some users praising the network for helping protect its users, and others saying that until it removes JavaScript or doesn’t force users to post real names and validation info, it won’t make any difference. Others are saying it will only really be useful for those trying to log in from countries like Russia and China that heavily censor the internet. Ultimately, it seems that if you log onto FB using this Tor link, they’ll still know it’s you, but anyone snooping into your connection won’t.

They also say they’ve decided to use SSL with the connection, partly for architectural reasons, which seems to be unusual in the Tor world. However, Facebook do explain this is all ‘a starting point for discussion’; and that they want to share what they’ve learnt (an important part of Open Source software, which Tor is), and continue to improve the service.

What are Tor and the deep web?

Tor is software designed by The Tor Project to stop people learning your location or browsing habits. You can use it in browsers or instant messaging, and it’s free and Open Source (anyone can use or create their own version without copyright issues) for the Windows, Mac, Linux/Unix and Android operating systems. They run as part of the ‘deep web’ – things that you can’t crawl on search engines. Estimates are that about 96% of the internet is in this mysterious zone.

How Tor works is by bouncing internet connections around a global network of users so it’s harder for surveillance software to see which sites you’re going on, and whereabouts you actually are. It’s notoriously used as part of this deep web, which – on the positive side of the fence – is used for things like protecting the identity of activists in dangerous situations, tips for journalists, and people who want to share victim experiences anonymously etc. On the downside, it’s also a hotbed of people carrying out illegal activities; infamously helping to hide users of the Silk Road website, which sells drugs and weapons, amongst other things. The Tor project works with law enforcement agencies like Interpol to try and stop this happening though.

Andrew Lewman, executive director of the Tor Project said: “We’re a non-profit. We do research and development into online privacy, and our main product is called the Tor Browser, which is an anonymous browser that puts you in control of your data. The Tor Network is a network of about 6,000 relays, which are servers spread around 89 countries or so.”

He claims it’s also used by regular people though, “for the same reason that you close the door to go into your house, some people just don’t want to leave a trail of data where they’ve been on the internet.” Privacy has obviously been a huge issue recently with GCHQ and its US counterpart NSA being accused of collecting all kinds of data, and that’s not counting efforts made by cyber criminals.

So, what do you think – is this a tool that will actually help keep users’ data from prying eyes, or a token/potentially fruitless effort by a company that sells its data to the (cyber) Devil with a smile on its face?

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