A beginner’s guide to Tor: How to navigate through the underground internet

I’ll begin with a warning. Everything you’ve heard about the deep web is probably true. Yes, it’s a hub for illegal activity. Yes, cyber criminals run loose. And yes, users can find terrifying illegal behavior–including a bitcoin funded assassination market. In short, the Deep Web has a reputation for being virtual refuge for people who have something to hide. The most popular gateway into the Deep Web is Tor, a free network which allows users to anonymously browse the Web, and has been under NSA’s microscope since its inception in 2002. Countries like Russia and the US are trying to expose Tor users. Russia has issued a bounty, offering upwards of $100,000 for anyone who can successfully deanonymize Tor.

Generally, Tor users (even the ones who haven’t broken any laws) are treated with suspicion, as evidenced by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who leaked the list of people the NSA is targeting based off their use of Tor. Snowden’s report suggests that the NSA may even target those who are simply Tor-curious or have affiliations with targeted users, which could be just about anyone. Simply being affiliated with a targeted user is enough for the NSA to begin logging information about you too.

Despite its rogue portrayals, Tor is a legal site with largely benign intentions. Beyond all the infamy, the actual software does a terrific amount of good. Anonymous browsing can be essential in some cases and Tor can be a refuge for people who are victims to stringent censorship. The service is becoming popular– recently reporting over 2.5 million users. Even regular Joes can turn to Tor for peace of mind when browsing the web.

Here’s our guide to Tor. We’ll provide everything you need to know to get started. We’ll also list some important guidelines that outline the the best ways to stay safe on Tor. And finally, we’ll explain what kind of user may benefit from Tor.

Update: This article was originally published on June 1, 2013, and was updated to reflect recent changes and new information surrounding Tor.Digital Trends’ editorial assistant Joe Donovan contributed to this article.

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Tor: a brief history and definition

Definition: Tor is a free software that allows users to anonymously browse the Web. Unlike standard browsers “incognito” or “private” modes, Tor is virtually untraceable.

The software was originally named “The Onion Router” and was initially intended for protecting the U.S. Navy and its communications. These days, the site has been co-opted to become a free anonymizing utility. Tor works by hiding the source and destination of your internet traffic. The result that no one can see who you are or what you’re looking at.

How Tor works

Tor works by anonymizing the transport of your data. Like an onion, Tor encrypts the data you send through the web in multiple layers. Your data is then “relayed” through other computers. Each relay sheds one layer then finally arrives at the source in full form. The software bounces users around a network of open connections run by volunteers all over the globe. This prevents people from spying on your Internet connection and discovering sites you visit. Tor scrambles information that could pinpoint your exact physical location.

Who uses Tor?

First and foremost, the utility isn’t exclusively for cyber criminals. Tor is for everyone who is concerned about privacy. For starters, many Tor users fear their browsing history is possibly being logged. Many sites, including Facebook, sell your browsing history to advertisers. It’s likely those ads on the sides of your social network and email accounts are the product of third-parties buying and analyzing your browsing history without your approval.

It’s common for people to turn to Tor for basic security. Often times Activists and Journalists use the utility to report injustices from enemy territory without being discovered or to better protect their sources.

Related: Tor’s plans for an anonymous instant messager

The ability to remain undetected by invasive marketing strategies is valuable to just about anyone especially those in a professional environment who routinely share confidential documents and need to prevent third-parties from snooping on their browsing history. Especially considering internet providers have been known to sell your browsing records and even log-in credentials to anyone willing to pay for it.

At times, anonymity is important for safely utilizing basic internet functions. The utility can be an asset for citizens of countries with stringent censorship laws. In some cases, basic information is placed behind a firewall. Tor allows users can anonymously circumvent firewalls and research, say, HIV treatment or access Facebook.

Tor Search Field

Getting Started: The Tor Browser Bundle

The easiest way to use Tor is the Tor browser bundle. The preconfigured Mozilla Firefox browser is easily downloaded from Tor’s official site. Once downloaded, a message will appear that asks if you’d like to connect or configure your browser. In most cases, you can simply connect. However, you should configure your browser if it’s possible that your connection is censored, filtered, or proxied. It’s also worth noting that Tor may violate internet browsing policies at work or over other public networks.

If you’re on a network that has firewalls and prohibits access to Tor (this could be the case in countries like Iran and China) you can also download Tor via Gmail. Send an message to “gettor@gettor.torproject.org.” In the body of the email write the word, “help.” From there, you’ll receive step-by-step instructions to download Tor.

Before you do anything, it’s best to open your Tor browser and preform a Tor check to ensure that you’re browsing anonymously.

Browsing Guidelines: How to maintain privacy on Tor

Tor’s website encourages users to read their browsing guidelines. The browser will ensure total anonymity only if the user abides by the Tor guidelines.

  • Use the Tor browser. In reality, Tor does not protect all of your machine’s Internet traffic when you use it, but only computer applications that are correctly set up to send traffic through Tor.
  • Forget your love for browser plugins. By default, the Tor browser has the likes of Flash, RealPlayer, and Quicktime blocked since they have been known to reveal your IP address. Having said that, installing additional plugins and add-ons onto the Tor browser is highly discouraged – it may cause Tor to malfunction and may affect your privacy settings. Although YouTube content is generally blocked as well, some videos can work on the Tor browser through an experimental opt-in feature.
  • Always use HTTPS when visiting websites. It shouldn’t be a problem if you’re using the Tor browser since it already includes HTTPS Everywhere, but just to be completely sure, keep a keen eye on the URLs you visit.
  • Don’t open downloaded materials while on Tor. Documents and PDF files may reveal your non-Tor IP address when you open it through external applications. Wait until you can disconnect from the Internet before opening these files.
  • Do not torrent while on Tor. It’s not a safe combination.
  • Use Tor bridges. Like I previously mentioned, Tor doesn’t really completely stop people watching your Internet connection from detecting your Tor use.
  • Tell your friends (and neighbors) to use Tor. The more people near you that use Tor, the less susceptible you are to attacks.

Accessing Tor’s Hidden Services

Tor can help circumvent censorship regulations. For example, Russia’s newly imposed blogger law, that requires Russian bloggers to register their blog with the government. Tor has a network of “hidden” websites all with a .onion address that are designed for uncensored web publishing or instant messaging servers. They get around censorship regulations by hiding the IP address. These hidden sites can only be accessed via Tor or other utilities that anonymize your IP address. Check out how to configure your hidden website via Tor.

Risks and Limitations

Aside from the risk of being targeted by the NSA and other Security Administrations, Tor does come with some drawbacks. Tor will make your Internet connection slower, because it has to go through a bunch of relays to mask your location.

What’s more, skilled trackers will know that you’re using Tor. The fact that you’re using Tor (but not your source or destination) is easily discoverable. Though, actually obtaining your browsing history is much more difficult. Secondly, regularly used computer applications may not be protected by Tor. Applications like Flash and Quicktime have a tendency to compromise your anonymity by leaving a trace of your actual, non-Tor IP address. There is a workaround available for these issues though: you can complicate the discovery of your Tor use by using a Tor bridge relay instead of using a direct connection to the public Tor network, and you can ensure that you don’t run any external applications while connected. Finally, Tor is not completely indestructible – there are still attacks that can fall through the cracks of your Tor use, no matter how correct your configuration is. However, for any simple Internet user, Tor provides a good enough privacy and security cloak.

The Tor Project website has a comprehensive download page that houses packages for various platforms, namely Windows, iOS, and Linux. It even features an Android bundle and a downloadable source code, for the hardcore developers out there who know what they’re doing. Before you download anything, however, you need to be willing to break a few of your Internet habits and get in the Tor state of mind. Here are some tips the official website has outlined so you can maximize your experience using the software.

Why Tor is a necessity (and why anonymity online is important)

It’s not a secret that everything on the Internet is essentially available to the public, and that most certainly does not exclude your personal information. By merely visiting a slew of websites, you leave digital footprints that can easily be traced by anyone watching, especially those who only have malicious intents with your online identity and presence. Tor takes the ease by which these cyber hoodlums operate and complicates the process, giving you back some control over the data you produce. Just like in real life, everyone connected to the World Wide Web deserves to enjoy a part of their experience online free from prying eyes.

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