The internet gives you limitless access to information and entertainment at a cost – privacy. Everything you do gets monitored by website cookies (trackers), apps, internet service providers, or cybercriminals. Through the noise about privacy issues, one browser stands alone in the fight for concealing user data – Tor.
Tor is infamous for its access to the dark web, linking it to hackers, cybercriminals, and online pirates. But it’s often poorly understood and shrouded in mystery. So now, we’re going deep into what it is and whether you actually need it.
What is Tor?
The Onion Router (Tor) is an open-source browser that enables anonymous communication. The technology was developed in the 90s by the United States Naval Research Lab. The US government still views this technology as a tool that helps democracy thrive in authoritarian countries.
Before we explore how Tor protects your identity, let’s look at the internet itself. Special computers (servers) store data for websites like Google and Facebook. Other computers (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc.) work as clients and request access to the data stored on the servers. The transmission between them happens through Wi-Fi or cables, which enable a connection.
Data goes both ways and can be spied on or intercepted through the networks. That happens in case of a data breach, malware, or improper encryption. On the flip side, governments, internet service providers, and social media companies can see who’s doing criminal activities or analyze data for user behavior.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) are one of the solutions to disable prying eyes from spying on your data. Tor is another alternative that many people use.
How Does Tor Secure Your Data?
The Tor network works thanks to volunteers who use their computers as nodes. Data travels on the net in packets. When Tor users open a website, their packets don’t go directly to the server. The data goes through random nodes (volunteers) before going to the server.
Another interesting fact about the process is that packets get wrapped up in multiple layers, like an onion. When you need data from a server, the top layer tells it to go to Router 1. That’s the first stop. Once the data arrives, the layer is peeled off, and the packet moves to Router 2. No router knows the final destination. They only know the previous and next stop.
A fun way to remember this is through a Shrek quote:
“Ogres are like onions. They have layers,” Shrek says to Donkey. Ogres (and all of us) have layers to go through before you get to know them. The Onion Router has layers your data goes through before reaching the final destination.
The final destination doesn’t see your IP address but sees the IP of the last node (onion layer) instead. So, Tor is one of the best ways to hide your IP address. Then, no one can use IP lookup tools to find out your location or track your browsing activity. But it’s not the only way to hide your IP, nor is it the easiest.
Why Do People Use Tor?
One of the most famous Tor users is Edward Snowden. He’s a whistleblower who released information on the NSA PRISM program to the entire world. But that doesn’t mean you should be a freedom fighter, activist, or cybercriminal to use Tor. Regular citizens, academics, and privacy enthusiasts regularly use this browser because it keeps freedom of speech and privacy alive.
The mainstream media doesn’t like the true narrative and often paints the project in a bad light. Of course, there should be criticism about some of the users. Tor is free to use and allows people to form communities around various subjects. Some of those subjects are disreputable. To fight back against the media, Tor often hosts webinars about its pushes for democracy, human rights help, and guides for people living under hostile governments.
How Do You Use Tor?
The Tor Project has a website where you can download and install the program. You can use it on Android, Linux, macOS, and Windows. One thing to note is that you may run into some difficulties setting it up properly, especially if you have enabled antivirus and firewalls.
Even though Tor is private and secure by definition, you can compromise your anonymity. Here are some things you shouldn’t do while browsing to ensure guaranteed safety.
Do You Really Need It?
If you were looking for a way to be completely secure online, there isn’t any. Tor isn’t magic. It’s just a private, slow browser because data needs to travel between multiple nodes before it arrives at the right destination.
Using a VPN gives you a similar level of privacy. So, if you already use a VPN, Tor may not be that much useful for you.
Finally, you should be wary of the anonymous and hidden servers on the Tor network. Many pages are legal, like crypto exchanges and sites for whistleblowers. But there are sites for criminals and illegal marketplaces, and you don’t want to see what’s being posted there.
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