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May 29, 2015

Peeling The Onion Router

Posted by Dr. Ashutosh Saxena (View Profile | View All Posts) at 10:17 AM

Peeling Away The Onion Router
How real is digital anonymity?

According to the research firm Gartner Group, the amount of data produced on planet earth is set to increase 60 percent each year in the near future. Talk about Big Data getting even bigger! Unimaginably big, in fact. Where to start with this needle in this massive haystack?

The initial problem is, of course, that all data are not created equal. What might be precious information to your organization might be just chatter to another entity. And the other way around. So having all this data in your possession is one thing. Parsing through it to make sense of it all is quite another thing.

But one question that is routinely not asked either out of ignorance or sheer fright is how much of that rapidly increasing digital data is easy to find and safe to use? Enter TOR, a clever acronym for The Onion Router. It's a fascinating piece of software designed to provide anonymity on the Internet. It is a technique for anonymous communication over a digital network. Here messages are encapsulated in layers of encryption, and transmitted through a series of network nodes called onion routers, each of which 'peels' away a single layer, uncovering only the data's next destination. When the final layer is decrypted, the message arrives at its destination. The sender remains anonymous because every intermediary knows only the location of the immediately preceding and following routers.

It has become very popular in recent years because the public has learned the extent to which the online information they use is monitored by various government agencies in many countries.

Now here's the most interesting part about this piece of software (which was designed, incidentally by a not-for-profit group): Enterprises that depend on Internet data and the free flow of information, such as the large social media sites, tend to like TOR because it allows them to get past government firewalls in countries that forbid certain communications with the West (think Facebook confronting the 'Great Firewall' of China, for example). But because TOR is so successful at keeping its users and their information anonymous, the software is also a favorite of terrorist groups. Talk about appealing to two very different audiences!

But the story gets even more interesting: Before TOR's final design came out of the offices of a not-for-profit group that promotes Internet freedom, TOR initially began as a project of the U.S. government. So the software that was used by government turncoats to inform about online spying and monitoring practices had its genesis in the very laboratories that are now trying to peel away the layers of this complex Onion Router.

To law abiding citizens around the world, that's upsetting, because they like being part of what's known as the 'dark web.' They know they can access a London tabloid's website in a region run by a strict, totalitarian regime. To sophisticated teenagers, it's a way of communicating without allowing eavesdropping parents to know what's really going on in their lives. But the software is just as useful to illegal arms dealers and cyber-thieves who steal tens of thousands of credit card numbers from innocent victims whose only fault is that they shop at big box retailers and use their credit card at the wrong time.

I write about the Onion Router not to condemn it or to praise its use. I'm simply bringing its existence to light to readers who might never have heard of this piece of technology. What interests me more about how TOR is used (both for good and for bad and, for that matter, activities that are neither - they're quite neutral) is the reason for its existence: the need for digital security.

I have always said that the most successful enterprises of the next decade will be digital enterprises. But being digital isn't enough. These enterprises will use digital tools and solutions in ways that will keep their customers' information safe from anonymous entities. In this very space, the hottest social media apps are those that get around the big social media companies and allow their users to send and then permanently delete messages or photos (another feature very popular with the teenage demographic).

In the same way, the most successful enterprises that use digital means of communications to reach and to serve their consumer base will have iron-clad security measures in place to keep business transactions private. It's one of the reasons that Infosys is busier than ever. Helping enterprises serve the digital consumers in the safest and most professional way possible is part of what we do. With the world's data growing and the dark web getting darker, it's become more important than ever to invest in the right solutions to protect your customers.

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