In an effort to educate users, Tor animates online privacy

The Tor Project released a two-minute animated short film on its blog Tuesday intended to educate current and potential users of their service. The organization oversees a group of servers that affords greater privacy and security on the Internet when users log on through their Tor browser.

The video is a plain English pivot from the rather cryptic blog posts riddled with mouthfuls such as “the OpenITP circumvention tech festival” and “we want to use multithreading to spread Tor’s cryptography across more cores.” (If you understood that, please skip this article.)

Instead of unfamiliar technobabble, the narrator tells viewers in accessible terms that their typical online behavior is likely spilling information to unwanted strangers: advertisers, nation states, identity thieves.

“They will see your real identity, precise location, operating system, all the sites you have visited, the browser you use to surf the web and so much more information about you and your life, which you probably didn’t mean to share with unknown strangers who could easily use this data to exploit you,” the speaker says.

Then comes the hook.

“But not if you’re using Tor.”

The video explains how Tor shrouds a user’s internet traffic in three layers of encryption and passes it through three servers which are operated by volunteers. It details how the software can be used showing how activists and journalists can use it to evade surveillance, as can citizens living in oppressive regimes, whereas the average web surfers can also log on to duck a salvo of web advertisements.

Understanding and working toward end-user needs is the goal behind the video project, said Nima Fatemi, a self-described privacy advocate who oversaw the video project and authored the Tor blog post. Developers and security experts often cite usability as a missing linchpin in the success of privacy and security software, and the Tor Project is no stranger to that argument.

“Techies don’t always do a great job of explaining the Internet to average users — so we thought we’d let artists have a crack at it,” Fatemi said in a statement.

Tor has initially made the video available in Arabic, English, Farsi, French, and German with subtitles available in those five languages plus Chinese and Spanish. Fatemi’s blog post also doubled as a call to improve Tor documentation and usability, inviting other visual artists like Kajart — the Toronto based studio responsible for the video — to reach out to Tor.

The video comes on the heels of a rocky finish to 2014 for Tor Project public relations. The Silicon Valley publication Pando Daily took the organization to task over its use of government funding, which spiraled into key Tor figures engaging in a tumultuous Twitter tango with the article’s author. (Tor initiated as a Naval Research Laboratory project and continues to openly receive funding from various government entities.)

But things are looking up for this year: Earlier this month, it was announced that Tor was picked tenth in Reddit’s 2014 ad revenue charity, receiving $82,765.95 from the company, which spread 10 percent of its ad revenue for the year among 10 different nonprofits.

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at
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