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As the revelations of widespread spying by the US National Security Agency (NSA) continue to emerge, everyone from IT professionals to ordinary people are asking one basic question: Is it possible in the internet age to retain some level of anonymity, or is it true that, as Sun Founder Scott McNealy once said, "privacy is dead, get over it"? 

Think of what happens when you surf the internet. Keep in mind that everything you do online can be traced back to your IP address, and hence ISPs are able to keep a full record of every website you go to, the text of every search you perform, and even your passwords and user IDs can still be part of this data. Furthermore, in addition to your ISP, as much if not more information can be stored by the websites you visit and major search engines such as Google. Even your private e-mails can be intercepted en route to their destination by sophisticated sniffing software.

While the reality for most people is that it is unlikely they can obtain 100% security and secrecy, for those who genuinely are concerned about being spied on online, here are actually some surprisingly east steps you can take to make yourself anonymous online. Let's take a look at one option in particular. One very good step you can take to remain anonymous online is to use an internet browser called Tor that is an ideal alternative to Internet Explorer or Google Chrome. The TOR Project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to helping users maintain their privacy online. The TOR software is free and open source, and using Tor as your browser makes it extremely difficult for your activities online to be tracked. 

How does the Tor browser work? What basically happens is that you connect to the Tor network through an encrypted connection. When you access Tor, your traffic jumps through through numerous randomly selected relay points (which is run by volunteers by the way), before exiting the Tor network at a random point and arriving at your destination. The returns traffic simply travels in reverse, also hopping around the world between various random nodes before reaching you. Instead of travelling by the most direct routes between you and your destination and back again, data on the Tor network is essentially "randomized" so that no one at any point can tell where your data is coming from and going to. It's almost like someone throwing off a spy who may be tailing them, although in case the "spy" as it were is digital.

Let's take a look at a sample situation. Say you visit a major internet site like YouTube. The Tor relay nodes pass your traffic around various random points around the world until it reaches the exit and "connects" with the YouTube website. From the vantage point of YouTube - the site you are visiting - the traffic reaching it is not coming from your IP address, but rather the IP address of the node it reaches YouTube from.

To summarize, in my view the Tor browser protects you in two main ways:

1) Because your data is encrypted as it ravels back and forth between you and your destination, anyone trying to monitor or "sniff" your traffic will be unable to do so.

2) Likewise, because your traffic hops around through numerous relay points the websites you visit are unable to see and log your IP address, as they can only see the IP address of the random node through which your traffic reaches the site. Indeed, even the various relay nodes that pass your encrypted traffic between them as it hops around the world do not know where the traffic is coming from and who sent it.

Are there any downsides to Tor? Absolutely. The major issue with Tor is that it is significantly slower then Chrome, Internet Explorer or any other popular browser on the market. The reason behind this is quite logical. The fact that Tor relays your traffic around multiple relay nodes around the world means that the traffic to and from your computer takes significantly longer to travel the internet. This can certainly be a major annoyance, and no doubt degrades the performance of many applications. At the end of the day though, it ultimately comes down to each individual and how you weigh privacy versus convenience. 

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