Even before Edward Snowden revealed that the US government collects huge database of information on Americans and abroad targets, there were plenty of reasons why a person might want to be anonymous online. The Tor Project is working on a way to use its anonymous network to protect online chat conversations, but the project is nowhere near completion.
When it is finished, the Tor Instant Messenger Bundle (TIMB) will be a client for accessing chat services such as Yahoo, Facebook and Google while using the Tor protocol, a means of anonymizing (but not encrypting) Internet traffic to protect users' privacy.
TIMB would be an alternative for people who care about security and privacy but don't want to switch to an entirely separate, privacy-focused encrypted chat service such as Cryptocat or Wickr.
At the Tor Project's recent developers' meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, attendees outlined a "step-by-step plan for the Tor Instant Messaging Bundle," including an experimental build by March 31 of this year.
This caused some news outlets to incorrectly report that TIMB would be in an open beta by that date.
"What's been reported is a misunderstanding of the wiki detailing the work to be done," Andrew Lerman of the Tor Project told Tom's Guide. "It's a work in progress. The 'public beta scheduled for March 31, 2014' is just a milestone. No one can or should use this software at this point of development in 2014."
The Tor network is comprised of over 4,500 volunteer servers, called relays, all around the world. Data sent through this network is bundled into an encrypted routing packet when it enters, and then bounces around through various relays before it reaches its destination server. This roundabout route is similar to a person zigzagging through a city to shake a pursuer.
TIMB would work by forcing the instant-messaging traffic running through it to go through this network.
Currently, developers of TIMB plan for the service to also use "off-the-record encryption" or OTR. In this encryption method, which is also available for ordinary open-source IM programs such as Pidgin, each message is encrypted with its own key, so even if one message is cracked, the rest of the conversation is still secure.
TIMB is part of a larger effort within the Tor Project to make using the Tor network easier to use and more accessible. TIMB was first started in 2009, but put on hold in 2011 due to a lack of manpower and some bugs in Pidgin, the chat client that was being used as a base for the bundle.
TIMB was restarted in 2013, this time using Instantbird, the open-source chat client that can be used to access multiple chat services like Yahoo and Google.
Asked if TIMB will be released for smartphones, Lerman said that its final form is still undecided.