What is Tor

The Tor Browser – What is it and why would you use it?

Last edited: June 24, 2019
Reading time: 6 minutes, 29 seconds

If you’re interested in privacy and anonymity you have probably hear of Tor. But what is Tor, how does it work, and why would you use it? Read all about it in this article!

What is Tor?

Tor (The Union Router) is free open-source software that helps you to browse anonymously. It works the same as other browsers, like Google Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. The only differences are that it provides you with access to any website, regulated or not, and that your browsing is done anonymously.

The principle of Tor was developed at first to enable anonymous communication for military organizations. Today the Tor project is a non-profit organization what researches online censorship an develops online privacy tools. Most well-known is the Tor browser, which anonymizes all your browsing activities. But how does this work?

How Does Tor Work?

There is a good reason for the onion in the Tor logo. An union has many layers and so does your browsing when you use Tor. Tor encrypts your traffic and sends it on its way through a large network of nodes. At every node a layer of encryption is peeled off and the data is passed to the next node. Eventually the final layer is peeled off by the exit node and the information has arrived at its destination. With this method you prevent anybody from tracing the traffic back to you. Every station it goes through only get information on where the package came from and where it has to go. This way no one node knows the entire route of the traffic.

Girl retrieving an internet file through Tor Nodes

Why do People use Tor?

Though Tor was originally created for military purposes it has developed into a tool that can be useful to all, especially those who have something to hide or will benefit from anonymity online. For this reason it is often used by journalists and political activists.

Journalists are known to use Tor for several different reasons. For instance, if a source does not want to risk being revealed they could communicate using the Tor browser to stay anonymous. Journalists in dictatorships use the software to publish content that would get them in trouble with the law.

Another well-known user-group of Tor are the whistleblowers. One of Tor’s most notable supporters is Edward Snowden, who revealed details on classified surveillance programs in the U.S. Tor can be used by employees to expose company or government secrets or address illicit or immoral activities.

While all of this might seem very positive, there is another side to the coin. hackers and criminals use Tor to stay out of the hands of law enforcement. Tor is especially useful to criminals because it provides access to the dark web. On the dark web you can find places like Silk Road, where drugs, weapons, and other illegal products are sold. Moreover, criminals can communicate without law enforcement being able to track their conversations.

The use of Tor is legal. However, it is often brought in connection with illegal things. Because the software provides the user with anonymity it is sometimes used for illegal purposes. As you have read, some will use it to spread state secrets or critique their totalitarian government, others use it to go on to the dark web where there is a lot of illegal activity.

So, even though some of the uses of the dark web might not be strictly legal, the software itself is.

Limitations of Tor

Tor is useful but definitely has its imperfections. Browsing with Tor isn’t as anonymous as they claim it to be. Although the people at Tor are constantly working to improve their protection it has been cracked in the past. When this happened in the past, Tor has stressed that it was not their network itself that was cracked but individual browsers.

With the help of internet providers, law enforcement can expose the identity of Tor users. However, they only do so selectively. Only when something fishy is going on will they use this method of exposure. Nonetheless, this means that Tor does not provide full anonymity.

The Tor project has a large network of privacy activists that are constantly working towards a more private online climate. They are constantly updating their software to make it safer. If you want to use Tor it is always good to download the most recent version.

It is clear that Tor has limitations but are constantly working towards better safer software.

Is Tor for You?

For the average internet user the anonymity of Tor isn’t enough of an incentive because the encryption also makes your connection significantly slower.

You can browse relatively anonymous with Tor but it does not anonymize nor protect all your other internet activities. Applications that you do not open with your browser will not be protected with the Tor network. If you want to make sure all your online activity is encrypted and anonymous a VPN might be a better solution for you.

A VPN allows you to use the internet without restrictions. It helps you to bypass any geographical censorship. Moreover, it encrypts all of your data traffic and makes sure you can download anonymously and browse completely anonymously.

An advantage of Tor over other privacy services is that Tor is completely free.

The fact that it provides you with access to the dark web is something you should be watchful of. The dark web is the unregulated part of the internet. Which means it is easier to get infected with malware there. If you want to use the dark web make sure you only visit safe and legitimate websites.

How do I Install Tor?

Convinced you want to get Tor? Installing Tor on your device isn’t difficult at all.

1. Go to the Tor website.

Tor website

2. Click on the download button

Tor download

3. Click download again

tor download

4. Select a language and click ok

Tor language

5. Tor Browser Setup appears, click install

Tor install

6. Open the application

Tor app

7. Press connect and your Tor browser will open

Tor browser

You are now ready to browse the internet anonymously.

Other Tor Projects

orbotApart from the Tor browser, the Tor project has quite a few other projects that all have something to do with online privacy. An example is the Orbot, which is a free proxy application for android devices. It uses the same network of nodes to transport you information, as the Tor browser does.

Another project of the Tor project is OONI. The Open OONIObservatory of Network Interference is free software that is designed to detect censorship on the internet. The software doesn’t protect your device nor does it bypass the restrictions it finds. OONI is a project that is meant to monitor the state of internet censorship all over the world. Learn more about things they have discovered on the OONI website.

Tor-messengerThe Tor project has also created a chat program that encrypts all communication and it’s called Tor Messenger. You can still use all your regular services like Google Talk, Facebook chat, and twitter but your chat data is anonymized and no logs are kept. However, updates of the Tor Messenger have stopped as of april 2018.

Final Thoughts

The Tor project is a great champion in the world of online privacy. Their browser provides users with the freedom to visit any website they would like and a degree of anonymity online. However, this is limited to their browser and does not cover all internet activity like a VPN would. Moreover, they have law enforcement on their tail because the software is often used for illegitimate business. The service is easy to download and completely free but does have its limitations. If you do decide to use the Tor browser it is wise to watch out for unregulated websites and protect yourself against malware.

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