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Private browser network Tor has unexpected friends in unexpected places

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Internet privacy is a much-treasured objective in an NSA world. Spies abound, from governments to military to hackers.

Whether a user is harboring state secrets or just doesn't want the contents of their emailed love letters revealed by a skywriting team, most Internet users no longer feel their web meanderings are safe from prying eyes or prying fingers.

That's where the Tor Project comes in. Tor, which is an acronym for The Onion Router, began as a U.S. Navy-developed worldwide network of servers that were configured to help users browse the Internet anonymously.

In its current form, Tor is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of online privacy tools. Its main product available at present is a downloadable web browser that claims to offer privacy and anonymity.

The Tor Project is a work in progress. Tor users are encouraged to submit bugs and flaws to Tor staff.

Naturally, some of the organizations that rely on spying on Internet users, such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), are primarily interested in defeating Tor's privacy features, and rather than making Tor aware of bugs and flaws, are exploiting them to the agencies' benefit.

But according to Andrew Lehman, executive director of the Tor Project, there are operatives within these agencies who are providing tips to Tor that expose vulnerabilities within Tor code.

In other words, Tor has friends in high places that seem to be double agents within their own spy rings.

Employees of these agencies can count on anonymity when reporting bugs to Tor.

"The fact that we take a completely anonymous bug report allows them to report to us safely," said Lehman. "There are plenty of people in both organizations (GCHQ and NSA) who can anonymously lead data to us to say -- maybe you should look here, maybe you should look at this to fix this, and they have."

Lehman believes members of both organizations who are personally opposed to government spying on citizens are the ones stepping forward to contribute to Tor.

Tor works by routing a user's web traffic across different Tor-affiliated servers, encrypting that traffic so it is untraceable. Essentially, Tor plays a shell game with traffic, moving from undisclosed location to the next lily pad until the ultimate destination is reached.

Attempts by Internet scoundrels to target an individual's computer will find that they only have access to random nodes within the Tor network, and no route back to a user's computer.

One downside to Tor browsing, however, is a noticeably slower Internet experience, since user traffic has to make many stops en route to its final destination.

Of course, drug traffickers, child porn traders and other illicit users can also operate with greater impunity via Tor, accessing sites that comprise what is known as the Dark Web. 

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