You probably haven’t heard of Tor, or know what it is or what it is used for.
You may have heard that illegal goods and services marketplace Silk Road was seized by the FBI this week, and its founder Ross Ulbricht has been arrested. The website was notorious for being an easy place to buy illegal drugs online. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Authorities allege that the wrongdoing went far beyond narcotics. The site was also a marketplace for firearms, ammunition and computer hacking services.
Silk Road was a “hidden service” – not publically available on the internet. Users accessed the site using Tor, which is free software that internet users can use to browse the web anonymously. Ironically, even though Tor receives about 60% of its funding from the U.S. Government, the Guardian is reporting today that the NSA has made repeated attempts to infiltrate accounts of Tor users.
We have talked to teenagers who use Tor, but as far as we know it is not to buy drugs. Tor can simply be used if you do not want any record of websites that you’ve visited. For those especially conscious of privacy, software like Tor has some appeal. That being said, while we are in favor of privacy, we don’t recommend that minors be allowed to browse the internet anonymously.
First, if a teen seeks to be anonymous, there is a likelihood that he is going to be doing or looking at something that he doesn’t want parents or the authorities to see. While that may not be the case every time, we wouldn’t risk it.
Second, it isn’t foolproof. Internet anonymity is only as good as the servers that hold the software and protect a user’s personal information. Since the founder of Silk Road, an experienced hacker with lots to lose, was arrested, one can assume that Tor was breached. If believing he is anonymous would lead a teen to engage in risky behavior he wouldn’t do otherwise, the stakes can be very high.
Third – this might sound obvious – as a parent you should have some idea of what your child is doing online. I don’t mean following every post or keystroke, but consider the tragic teen suicide case in Michigan this week. The teen committed suicide after foreshadowing the event on Instagram and Twitter. When interviewed, the parents’ reaction was gut wrenching:
“[the teen’s mother] said she and [the teen]’s father followed him on Facebook, but they didn’t know about his Twitter and Instagram accounts.
“What he posted to the social media sites is heartbreaking,” she said. “Had we had known, this all could have been prevented.”
Parents who don’t have at least a general idea of what their kids are doing online leave themselves very poorly positioned to do their most important job – help their kids to be safe and strong.
Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring teen internet activity.