The web most of us use isn’t one built for privacy — the NSA aside, advertising is what makes the World Wide Web go ’round, and advertising often means marketers getting to know you better than you’d like. While most of us probably aren’t getting actively snooped on, maintaining high standards for privacy is good practice in general, and there are many activists worldwide who have good reason to think they’re being spied on. That’s why Tor exists — a system of web browsing that bounces server requests along several nodes to obscure the source of the request (that’s you). Until now, Tor has been used mostly for secure web browsing, but that technology has finally been extended to instant messaging, and it’s going to work for some services not exactly known for their sterling privacy records.
Tor Messenger is a chat client that can take many of your existing chat clients and merge them into one UI, which is a neat feature in its own right, privacy aside. Currently, Tor Messenger works with IRC, XMPP, Google Talk, Facebook Messenger, Yahoo, Twitter, and a few others, using a simple log-in that is similarly protected by Tor’s privacy network. Google Talk, of course, is now Google Hangouts — if you had an old Google Talk account, you can use that to sign in, but you’ll have more difficulties trying to login with your current Google account. Google blocks Tor Messenger from signing into your account, so you’ll have to go through extra authentication steps with Google directly, which puts a bit of a damper on the whole anonymity thing.
Once your accounts have been set up, you can establish secure chats with any of your contacts, all of which are off the record by default — they won’t be saved to your respective messaging accounts. If you don’t want a conversation stored on Facebook’s servers, it won’t be — Tor Messenger uses contact information to set up a temporary chat channel, with the caveat that the recipient should probably know what you’re doing before you send them the request (if it comes from out of the blue, they might not trust it unless they’re well-versed in privacy software).
While Tor Messenger will work great with clients like IRC and Jabber that already have built-in anonymity features, it probably won’t be reliable long-term for Facebook and Google — both companies rely on gleaning information from you to make a profit, and they don’t have to leave channels open for Tor to use. It’s also not completely private — both parties will still know you’re sending messages, even if they don’t know the contents or your location.
The ins and outs of Tor and how it works are complicated, and this is a beta version, so user-friendliness probably shouldn’t be an expectation yet — then again, with Tor, it rarely is. The Tor network is really one for people who might be actively spied on, not so much for the average user. Still, Tor Messenger a good way to learn about how privacy networks like Tor work, even if they can never guarantee security with 100 percent confidence.