Using Tor protects you against a common form of Internet surveillance known as “traffic analysis.” Traffic analysis can be used to infer who is talking to whom over a public network. Knowing the source and destination of your Internet traffic allows others to track your behavior and interests. This can impact your checkbook if, for example, an e-commerce site uses price discrimination based on your country or institution of origin. It can even threaten your job and physical safety by revealing who and where you are. For example, if you’re travelling abroad and you connect to your employer’s computers to check or send mail, you can inadvertently reveal your national origin and professional affiliation to anyone observing the network, even if the connection is encrypted.
How does traffic analysis work? Internet data packets have two parts: a data payload and a header used for routing. The data payload is whatever is being sent, whether that’s an email message, a web page, or an audio file. Even if you encrypt the data payload of your communications, traffic analysis still reveals a great deal about what you’re doing and, possibly, what you’re saying. That’s because it focuses on the header, which discloses source, destination, size, timing, and so on.
A basic problem for the privacy minded is that the recipient of your communications can see that you sent it by looking at headers. So can authorized intermediaries like Internet service providers, and sometimes unauthorized intermediaries as well. A very simple form of traffic analysis might involve sitting somewhere between sender and recipient on the network, looking at headers.
But there are also more powerful kinds of traffic analysis. Some attackers spy on multiple parts of the Internet and use sophisticated statistical techniques to track the communications patterns of many different organizations and individuals. Encryption does not help against these attackers, since it only hides the content of Internet traffic, not the headers.