Web Browsing Encryption for Journalists: Beginner’s Tutorial

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EFJJOURNALIST TUTORIALS: Encrypted Email | Encrypted Chat | Encrypted Web Browsing

Windows tutorial coming soon.

Introduction

Imagine if you had access to the Web browsing history of anyone in the world. Journalists know this could be an endless source of information.

Take a moment and open up your Internet history briefly. Or how about scanning through just an hour of my browsing history from Saturday, May 31. What can you tell about me?

This is my actual browsing history, though I censored the name of a Facebook friend in orange.
This is my actual browsing history, though I censored the name of a Facebook friend in orange.

Here’s what an investigative journalist might notice:

  • He likes Family Guy (YouTube)
  • He likes sports (ESPN)
  • He visited a friend’s Facebook page
  • He likes online shopping (Tanga)
  • He likes to see what’s trending and popular online (Reddit)
  • He’s like the idea of justice and good moral values (YouTube)
  • He is looking at available job openings (TVJobs)
  • He’s familiar and comfortable with selling on Craigslist — and may be moving soon?
  • He probably multitasks online with different tabs (out-of-order browse history)
  • He may have listened to OneRepublic’s song “Good Life”

Obviously, I’m thinking about all kinds of things on this Saturday morning — but to a journalist, this can be valuable information for starting up a conversation (“Did you see how great the Miami Heat looked last night?”) or really grabbing someone’s attention (“Are you interested in a great investigative reporter job in Los Angeles?”).

But perhaps most invasive are the small things, because browsing history (especially search engines) reveal a person’s actual thoughts. Clearly, I was wondering about the NBA Playoffs. Clearly, I was curious about the lyrics of a popular song. These are real-time thoughts, logged in digital form.

How long would this list be if we could skim through a weekend’s worth of browsing? (Would you willingly release all your browsing history during the time you’ve had your Internet service provider? Would you release the full data history your current cell phone carrier collects?)

Thoughts reveal who you really are, to an unseen world that harvests and serves up your details to highest bidders. Meanwhile, the NSA can record what you click and type on your screen in real time, and admits collecting Internet histories in order to blackmail those it deems threatening. (And let’s assume nothing can ever be bought, leaked, hacked, stolen or otherwise released to the Internet at large.)

Simply put, protecting your browsing has never been more important. Here’s how to do it easily using a free tool.

Tor: The Anonymous Web Browser

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 11.59.03 PM

Tor is an hugely popular open-source (meaning transparently written) Web browser developed by perhaps the greatest technology geeks in the world at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (arguably the most respectable nonprofit communications organization).

Tor takes the Web traffic of its millions of users and scrambles it, essentially making everyone anonymous. While individual websites can tell someone is visiting the page (websites broadcast information out only after your browser requests it), Tor prevents any websites from tracking who you’re connected to and what other websites you’ve visited today. The tradeoff? Tor makes your Internet slower, because it has to bounce websites you want to access through a network of other anonymized computers before they make it to your screen.

But for browsing privacy, Tor is nearly flawless, and is easy to install as well.

Mac

1. Download and install the Tor Browser Bundle from TorProject.org.

2. After installation, drag the program into your Applications folder and then open it.

Drag the TorBrowser into your Applications folder before opening it.
Drag the TorBrowser into your Applications folder before opening it.

3. If an alert box pops up warning about the application being downloaded from the Internet, click “Open.”

Click Open. This poses no risk to your computer whatsoever.
Click Open if you see this popup window. This poses no risk to your computer whatsoever.

4. The Tor Network Settings window will appear. Select the option that works for you (probably the first option, which I’ll use). Click Connect.

You will most likely use the first option. The second option is for those who live in countries that ban or restrict Internet access.
You will most likely use the first option. The second option is for those who live in countries that ban or restrict Internet access.

5. The Tor browser will pop up. If you see the “Congratulations” message, you’re anonymous! (For bonus fun, test your IP address by visiting WhatIsMyIP.com, and notice your city and country.)

If you see this page, you're now connected to the Tor public relay. You're ready to browse anonymously.
If you see this page, you’re now connected to the Tor public relay. You’re ready to browse anonymously.

Note: Tor doesn’t protect other Internet-enabled programs (such as email clients), it only hides your browsing. Also, Tor blocks browser plug-ins including Flash and QuickTime, which often capture your IP address. While sometimes an annoyance, you can be confident Tor is protecting your anonymity. More tips here.

Windows

Coming soon.

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