Tor Explained – Is it Safe to Use?
TOR is an anonymous network for accessing the internet. It was built as a tool that encrypts data and makes the user anonymous by using multiple relays to reach the destination. Today, TOR is used outside of research by users who are demanding privacy more than ever.
But the function of TOR and how it is used is still a mystery to many. This blog aims to educate you on why exactly TOR is gaining popularity.
The Onion Routing – What is Tor?
Tor stands for The Onion Router. The basis for that name will become clear in a while.
Onion routing was conceptualized and built back in the 1990s at the U.S Naval Research Lab by three researchers who wanted to achieve anonymity. The internet was still in its infancy, but the idea that people will need private access to the internet was a concern even back then.
It wasn’t until the mid-2000s when onion routing found its wings. Two students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) took the onion ring framework and put it to use on what will then become the most popular implementation of onion routing. Called The Onion Routing (TOR), the implementation was released under an open-source agreement. It allowed other researchers to pick up on the work of the two MIT students and improve upon it.
Today, Tor is a network consisting of thousands of users that are the backbone of its infrastructure.
How Does Tor Work?
Tor is a decentralized network, which means it consists of users (nodes) that make up the entire network for peer-to-peer delivery. Acting as part of the Tor network is completely voluntary; users run Tor software on their computers to act as a node in the network. It speaks volumes about the conviction that these users have about Tor’s ability to deliver anonymous web browsing.
In a centralized network, a server acts as the host that provides a gateway to the internet, providing fundamental services like DNS lookup. Users connect to this central server and control the flow of traffic. But in Tor, there are three nodes through which your traffic travels to its destination. Since it’s a decentralized network, there is no central server; all users in the Tor network are connected to each other.
When you make a request to open a website, it will travel to the first random node in the network, which is also called the entry node. It will relay data to the middle node, which will relay the data to the exit node.
The approach is to ensure anonymity every step of the way. Only the first node interacts with you, the rest have no clue where the request came from, and encryption prevents anyone from stealing the data packets.
Encryption is peeled off at every node, revealing the next layer that is to be decrypted next. And this is where the name of the onion router comes full circle. Like the layers of an onion, Tor encrypts data packets with multiple layers that are then peeled off at every stage. The exit node knows the destination but has no idea from where the request originated.
How to Use Tor
The Tor network can be accessed by software of the same name. It is a web browser based on Firefox’s code and allows you to surf the internet using Tor’s nodes.
Deep Web is one part of the internet that can be accessed only with such software. The Deep Web contains all such links that are not indexed by search engines. Some websites may opt-out of being indexed by search engines like Google, and Tor is a way through which access is possible. The websites carry the .onion suffix.
- Download Tor for your platform.
- Run the setup and follow through with the process.
- Launch Tor once it has been installed. Run with default settings.
You can now start using Tor just like any other web browser.
Is There a Downside to Tor?
The glaring problem of Tor is performance. Because data has to travel multiple nodes and then back, latency takes a hit. It is much slower than your typical browsing experience with any other web browser. It is a double-edged sword, but it’s not as bad as you think it is. A couple of more seconds might be worth the trouble for you when privacy is concerned. Journalists use Tor to contact whistleblowers and remain anonymous.
The private and anonymous aspects of Tor has also spawned various illegal websites that occupy the notorious “Dark Web.” We are talking about underground guns marketplace, human trafficking, credit card information selling, child pornography, and other inhumane aspects of our society.
But Tor is safe to use. Just don’t venture where you are not supposed to go.
Why Do You Need a VPN for Tor?
Even Tor has one glaring aspect that only a VPN can solve. Remember the entry node? It interacts with you, hence knows where your IP address, even though it cannot see the actual contents of the data packets. For a complete security, a VPN is recommended.
A VPN in the equation will ensure that your identity is not exposed. Internet traffic will first travel encrypted to the VPN server before connecting with Tor’s network. The entry node will now interact with the remote VPN server, thus making your identity completely anonymous from start to end.
It takes only a look at what websites and apps authoritarian governments do not like or have outright banned to have a sense of legitimacy. Just like VPN services, Tor has been banned in countries like China. It proves Tor’s reputation of being a privacy-focused tool that can cover your tracks online.
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