Facebook has surprised the internet’s security community by offering a link to its website that works on Tor – an anonymizing program that is often synonymous with the “dark web”.
The creation of a Tor link for the site is a first from Silicon Valley’s tech giants and legitimizes privacy-conscious Facebook users who want their data to be securely encrypted as its make the trip to and from the company’s servers.
Tor, which was created by the US Navy in the mid-1990s to secure intelligence communications and is still partly funded by the American government, is available for free to download and counts journalists, criminals and human rights activists amongst its users.
Facebook’s new Tor link could be especially useful in countries like Iran, China and North Korea, where the social media site has been banned for fear that it will be used by opposition parties and movements to mobilize protest.
Users accessing the site via Tor will not be anonymous to Facebook itself, which will still require individuals them to log in – most likely using their real names (the site has always been hostile to the use of pseudonyms, though it has relaxed this rule in recent months after vocal protests in the US by members of the LGBT and drag communities) but will frustrate law enforcement or hackers watching a person’s computer.
Runa Sandvik, a former Tor engineer who advised the social network on the project, told Wired that the change was a “huge benefit”: “You get around censorship and local adversarial surveillance, and it adds another layer of security on top of your connection.”
Tor works by bouncing internet connections around a global network of users, making it extremely difficult for surveillance software to connect the dots between an individual’s computer and the sites they’re accessing.
Prior to Facebook’s new Tor address this sort of connection pattern makes it extremely difficult for would-be anonymous users to access the social network: the site would see the connection jumping from country to country, assume the user had been hacked and block them.
Privacy advocates have welcomed Facebook’s decision and called upon other tech giants such as Twitter and Google to follow suit – although many companies will not want to antagonize countries or even local law enforcement who have been enjoying a ‘golden age’ of digital surveillance in recent years.