Online security toolkit

Surf safely and stay that way with this free Internet security suite.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation publishes Tor, a free suite of Internet communications and security utilities. Tor enables safe, anonymous online browsing and publishing, instant messaging, and more. It has potential uses ranging from helping casual Net surfers protect themselves from online attacks and predators to giving programmers the tools to develop applications with built-in safety and privacy features. Tor protects your online privacy and anonymity by linking your PC to the Tor network, which then links to the "outside world." Tor's developers stress the importance of understanding what Tor does and doesn't do; it stands not only between your browser and the Net but also you and your browser, and it disables nearly all animation, add-ons, gadgets, and extensions, including Flash, Java, and ActiveX, so sites like YouTube won't work unless you allow them in Tor or turn Tor off, which is easy to do but leaves your PC vulnerable.

The Tor software is controlled through the bundled Vidalia GUI, a compact, icon-based interface that resembles a Mac pop-up, and a system tray icon. The included Torbutton add-on for Firefox lets you quickly toggle Tor on and off. Handy shortcuts display the Tor Network Map, add identities, set up relays, and stop Tor quickly. A green Vidalia onion icon indicated that our PC was connected to the Tor network. We clicked the Torbutton to enable it in Firefox and browsed to Hulu.com, which told us we'd need to download Flash player to see videos. We toggled Tor off, reloaded Hulu.com, and got a Tor warning message. Following the message's instructions, we clicked in the URL field, clicked Enter, and the site reloaded normally, with Flash enabled. While turning Tor off technically leaves your PC vulnerable, most users will want it to protect them from the unknown, not the all-too-familiar. Tor isn't set-and-forget software, either; you'll need to change your online habits for it to be effective. Tor only does what you let it, not vice versa.

Digital attackers are becoming ever bolder and more sophisticated even as more and more of your life is tied to the online world while security and privacy steadily erode. Using tools like Tor may not be as convenient as simply clicking away, but it's sure a lot safer.

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