This article has been just updated: December 13, 2019
You may have heard about the Tor browser. It has been prominently featured in news stories over the years as a portal to all of the evils that lurk in the part of the Internet known as the dark web. In fact, mention of the Tor browser is almost synonymous with accessing the dark web in some circles.
The Internet that you can access by using search engines like Bing or Google is known as the surface web. The surface web comprises only about 4% of the web’s content. The rest of the Internet is made up of the deep web and the dark web. Information in the deep or dark web is only accessible through specialized browsers. The dark web is notorious for hosting sites that engage in a wide range of illegal activities.
#1 What is a Tor Browser?
Tor is an open-source web browser that is free to download and use. It is available for Windows, Linux, Android, and you can even get a Tor browser for your Mac. The word Tor stands for the onion router. The use of the onion metaphor will become more evident as we explore how Tor works.
There is also a Tor network which is made up of many volunteer computers which are all running a specialized server application.
The Tor browser can provide a user with anonymity while accessing the Internet as well as allowing them to use special services which are features of the Tor network. Tor browser bundles in many languages are available from the Tor download site.
#2 What Problem is Tor Designed to Solve?
Tor is designed to foil Internet monitoring known as traffic analysis. This monitoring technique focuses on the headers of the data packets that make up messages sent over the Internet.
Divulging this kind of information to anyone who might be monitoring the network you are communicating on may not be to your liking. In some cases, it can pose real financial or physical danger by revealing your identity to advertisers or governmental agencies. Repressive governments may harass individuals based on their online communication patterns.
Tor is designed to resolve the issue of traffic analysis by keeping your Internet communications anonymous.
#3 How Does Tor Work to Ensure Anonymity?
Tor creates a distributed, anonymous network in order to preserve the anonymity of its users. Your web traffic is routed through the Tor network (onion router), effectively anonymizing it. In simple terms, the Tor browser connects to a publicly listed entry node, forwards your data through randomly selected relays, and then sends it out through an exit node.
Diving a little deeper, we find that the private network pathway is built incrementally using encrypted connections through network relays. The path is extended one hop at a time, with a relay only knowing which relay provided data and which relay will be the receiver. No relay knows the complete path. In this way, the anonymity of the sender is maintained.
#4 How is Tor Used?
Tor is used for a variety of reasons, not all of which are legal. Some specific uses of Tor are:
#5 Who Uses Tor?
Tor is used by many individuals as well as government agencies. Here are a few examples:
- Journalists use Tor to protect their privacy and safety and subvert repressive censorship.
- Law enforcement officers use Tor to conduct online surveillance, conduct sting operations and set up anonymous tip lines.
- Activists and whistleblowers can make their reports anonymously using Tor.
- Regular people use Tor to keep their online activities private or when researching sensitive subjects.
For more detailed information on who uses Tor, check out torproject.org.
#6 Is it Legal and Safe to Use Tor?
Tor is legal to use on your computer and some users may prefer it over other web browsers. It does offer you the ability to access many more websites than a more traditional browser such as Chrome or Firefox. Those applications limit connections to sites on the surface web. If you want to extend the breadth of your Internet access to the deep or dark web, then the Tor browser may be just what you need.
Legality and safety can be slippery subjects, and while simply downloading and using Tor may be safe and legal, using it in certain ways crosses the line and exposes you to serious consequences. It’s like owning a chainsaw. You can use it as intended, safely and legally. Or you can be reckless and dangerous, resulting injury to your self or others.
#7 Are There Any Issues Associated With Using Tor?
Slow performance is the major problem reported by users of Tor and may be enough of a reason to dissuade you from using this application. Sending your data through all those relays to preserve anonymity takes time and slows down your connection.
Simply using the tool may raise red flags to authority figures who have access to your computer system. For instance, if you use Tor on a work computer you may be suspect as a whistleblower. Management may distrust your desire to have your communication remain anonymous. Government agencies may take a closer look at individuals who have Tor installed on their computer.
There you have it. You can now make an informed decision regarding Tor and decide for yourself if it is right for your computing needs.