For the past 11 years, the Tor Project has focused on offering a secure browser that prevents websites or censors from determining what content you browse or how you use the internet. The system has never been perfect (no form of computer security is), but it’s still a critical way that end users in the Global South (developing countries) can bypass attempts to censor the Internet and access the “full” version. Now, Tor is expanding its work to include a mobile browser.
In recent years, the usefulness of Tor in what’s supposed to be its prime territory has been waning. While economists once expected developing countries to adopt the same desktop/laptop model as Western nations, the advent of mobile phones and extensive cellular and Wi-Fi networks has changed how countries use emerging technology. Tens of millions of people online today depend on a mobile phone for their internet access and don’t own a laptop or desktop at all. This makes Tor, which has focused on developing a desktop or laptop product, less useful to the very group of people that might need it the most.
Orfox, as built by The Guardian Project
To address this need, Tor partnered with The Guardian Project to further extend the capabilities of Orfox , a secure browser built on Tor’s code. At this stage of development, they’ve assisted with hardening Orfox’s security and now, with some GUI design options. Orfox now includes a GUI with a security slider to adjust exactly how much feature blocking Tor provides.
Tor’s security modifications
According to Tor, this is the first time the company has done a development cycle following UX best practices. The site notes that because it doesn’t collect data on user behavior, it had to build a testing methodology that would allow it to gather feedback from its testers and incorporate that feedback into the final product.
Tor also notes that mobile development is going to be an increasing focus going forward. This makes good sense, given how important the mobile internet is to the developing world and how many regimes in the Global South have a less-than-robust commitment to freedom of speech.
With that said, the biggest criticism of Tor has always been its performance. Even on a high-end desktop, Tor performance crawls compared with a conventional connection. I can’t imagine trying to use it on a midrange or low-end smartphone on an EDGE or 3G-equivalent connection. Until Tor manages to deal with that problem, it’s not clear how much it’ll be used, even in its target demographic.
The project intends to continue working with Orfox in the future, so it’s possible we’ll see tighter collaboration between the two groups going forward. There’s no word on when the group will bite the bullet and start calling the browser “Torfox.”