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Garlic deters vampires in horror movies, but on the internet, an onion deters people from knowing your identity as you do… whatever it is you do want to do on the internet.
We’re not talking about a literal onion though. We’re talking about “The Onion Router“—or Tor.
What is Tor?
Tor is a browser that can be used to surf the internet (mostly) anonymously.
By using a normal browser like Safari or Chrome, users can be tracked with their IP addresses that collect data on us and target advertising to us. Typically, when we connect to the internet, we connect to websites directly, allowing any digital prying eyes to see who we are, where we are, and what we’re looking at on their servers. Tor tries its best to remedy this issue by anonymizing your data by encasing it in layers of encryption. See the onion connection?
Tor was created by the U.S. Navy in 2004 as a means of protecting sensitive military data. But today, Tor has a wide variety of uses for civilians that are way less nautical and a lot more practical.
How does Tor work?
The Tor network is made up of countless nodes (relay points) that pass your data on using layers of encryption. Each node that your data passes through peels off another layer of encryption. Only the previous node’s IP address is shown, as well as the IP address of where the data is going. Thus, only enough is “peeled” to make the data easy to send and be received. The last node is called the exit node, which peels off your data and hands it to the intended server.
Who are the nodes?
Amazingly, Tor’s servers and relays are run by volunteers who believe in the mission of encrypted browsers. It’s been that way since the Tor Project was founded as a Massachusetts-based 501(c)(3) research-education nonprofit organization responsible for maintaining Tor.
Why do people use Tor?
Besides browsing the “regular” internet, Tor users can access and create websites, services, and messenger services on hidden areas of the internet, only accessible by Tor or other alternative browsers. These hidden places are part of the deep web, which has been estimated to make up 99% of the internet. Since the deep web is not on Google and exists below the surface, Tor is a valuable resource for searching and viewing these sites.
The Onion Router can also access the dark web, which is a network of sites that were created to be publicly accessible but still hidden from the majority of casual browsers. Yes, the dark web has a wide variety of sites that aid users in illicit activity. But you can also use the dark web to transfer money anonymously, start businesses using cryptocurrency, act as a whistle-blower, access information or media that may be censored in your country, and share controversial opinions that could have personal or professional ramifications if you used your IP address.
Who uses Tor?
Tor isn’t just used by nefarious people for nefarious purposes. Journalists, activists, militaries, privacy advocates, dissidents, people escaping dangerous personal situations (such as domestic abuse or stalking), and people simply looking to increase their information security use Tor regularly. Tor is especially useful to people who live in countries with governments that restrict, censor, or block internet usage or could use their IP data against them. In fact, many Tor advocates recommend using Tor for everything you want to do on the internet, not just for the activity you want hidden. By making Tor your default browser, Tor gets stronger. There’s power in numbers, and it’s easier to hide in a crowd.
What is using Tor like?
Tor is famously slow and pretty terrible for downloading large files. Otherwise, it works pretty much like Firefox. If you access the “normal” internet, their servers can see you are on an encrypted browser, but won’t know who you are. To access Tor-only sites, you will have to enter a web address that is “.onion” instead of “.com.” You’ll also have to use Tor-specific search engines and web apps if you want anonymity.
Can I get in trouble for having Tor?
You can only get in trouble for what you do on Tor, not simply downloading and having Tor.
Does using Tor make me invisible to the internet?
No. Just because you’re on a Tor browser doesn’t mean that hackers, law enforcement, or anyone wanting to extract your data can’t figure out who you are. Though Tor makes it difficult to decrypt your data, any personal information that is not secure may be read by the exit node or the destination. A 2007 test on exit node weakness allowed a security researcher to intercept thousands of private emails and hundreds of account credentials. Because anybody can run a relay, anybody can be an exit node.
Tor does try to heighten its security by limiting plug-ins, using https (instead of http), and encouraging the use of bridges or hidden relays. But most users seeking to fortify their connections further use a VPN (a virtual private network) in conjunction with Tor. Still, VPN providers can keep tabs on users, so it’s best to never give out personal info.
How do I use Tor?
Tor is a completely free browser that operates as a modified version of Firefox. Simply download Tor on its website, complete the setup, and browse normally. The Tor Project has also outlined some methods for speedier downloads and safer connections here.
Can I use Tor on my phone?
As of now, iOS devices do not have an officially sanctioned Tor browser. Android users can download Tor Project-endorsed Orbot onto their phones for mobile functionality of Tor.
One of the beautiful things about Tor is that the Onion Router is an equalizer. Without our data, essentially we’re all the same. Advertisers can’t make racist, sexist, or classist determinations about which information, products, media, and news appear on our screens. As corporations continue to sell and mine our personal lives, it’s possible that using Tor will become more valuable, not less. I don’t know about you, but that garlic is not working on Mark Zuckerberg.
Claire Downs is a tech reporter who covers the intersection of the internet and pop culture. A third-generation worker in the Chicago futures industry, she specializes in cryptocurrencies and altcoins. Her work can also be seen in Cosmopolitan, Vice Motherboard, VH1.com, and Merry Jane.