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

We live in an era of free-flowing data, where any person with an internet connection has all the information in the world at their fingertips. Yet, while the internet has dramatically expanded the ability to share knowledge, it has also made issues of privacy more complicated. Many people are justifiably worried about their personal information being stolen or viewed, including bank records, credit card info, and browser or login history.

Not only are government agencies able to track an individual’s online movements, but so too are corporations, who have only become bolder in using that information to target users with ads. User license agreements, smartphone apps, smart home assistants, and many freemium programs have clauses that allow companies to record and sell data on your shopping preferences, browsing habits, and other information. As the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.”

It should be noted that Tor can be used to access illegal content on the Dark Web, and Digital Trends does not condone or encourage this behavior.

Why the internet isn’t as secure as you think

Tor Browser

In this climate of data gathering and privacy concerns, the Tor browser has become the subject of discussion and notoriety. Like many underground phenomena on the internet, it is poorly understood and shrouded in the sort of technological mysticism that people often ascribe to things like hacking or Bitcoin.

Tor is software that allows users to browse the web anonymously. Initially developed by the Naval Research Lab in the 1990s, onion routers get their name from the onion-like layering technique that conceals information about user activity and location. Perhaps ironically, the organization received the bulk of its funding from branches of the United States government for years, which still view Tor as a tool for fostering democracy in authoritarian states.

To understand how Tor can protect a user’s identity as they browse the internet, we need to discuss the origins of the internet. At its most basic, it’s a series of connections between computers across great distances. In the beginning, computers were isolated and unable to communicate with each other. As the tech got more advanced, engineers were able to physically link computers together, creating the first networks.

These networks still required the computers to be relatively near each other, but advances in fiber optics enabled systems to connect across continents, allowing for the internet to be born. With the invention of Wi-Fi, satellite internet, and portable hotspots, the internet is now both more accessible and more vulnerable than ever before.

Some PCs house the data stored on the internet, including webpages like Google, which are known as servers. A device used to access this information, such as a smartphone or PC, is known as a client. The transmission lines that connect clients to servers come in a variety of forms, whether fiber-optic cables or Wi-Fi, but they are all connections.

Although clients initiate connections to get information from servers, the flow goes both ways. Data exchanged across the internet comes in packets that contain information about the sender and the destination. Specific individuals and organizations can use this data to monitor who is performing illegal activities or accessing illicit data on the internet, including police agencies, your internet service provider, and your social networks.

It is not just the server that can see this data; web traffic analysis is big business, and many organizations, both private and governmental, can monitor the messages flowing between clients and servers. Even an unassuming coffee shop Wi-Fi network or airport hotspot could be a cybercriminal hoping to get access to your data and sell it to the highest bidder. How, then, does Tor keep your information secret?

How Tor has the answer to secure browsing

There are two critical aspects of onion routing. First, the Tor network is composed of volunteers who use their computers as nodes. During normal browsing, information travels across the internet in packets. When a Tor user visits a website, however, their packets don’t directly move to that server. Instead, Tor creates a path through randomly assigned nodes that the packet will follow before reaching the server.

nodesillustration2

The other important aspect of onion routing is how the packets are constructed. Typically, packets include the sender’s address and the destination, like snail mail. When using Tor, packets are instead wrapped in successive layers like a nesting doll.

Anatomy of an onion packet. Original message is in black

When the user sends the packet, the top layer tells it to go to Router A, the first stop on the circuit. When it is there, Router A takes off the first layer. The next layer instructs Router A to send the packet to Router B.

Router A doesn’t know the ultimate destination, only that the packet came from the user and went to B. Router B peels off the next layer, passing it down the line to Router C, and this process continues until the message reaches its destination.

At each stop, the node only knows the last place the packet was and the next place it will be. No node records the complete path of data, and neither would anyone observing the message go out, assuming your first three servers are configured correctly.

How to get Tor

In keeping with the ideological aims of the Tor Project, Tor is free to use. Simply download and install the browser, which is a modified version of Firefox available for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. For mobile browsing, there’s an Android app called Orbot.

Users should note that while the Tor browser is pre-configured to work correctly, users on networks with firewalls or other security systems may experience difficulties. Moreover, being careless when browsing can still compromise one’s anonymity. Tor’s website has a comprehensive list of things to avoid doing while using the browser, as well as fixes for any problems that arise.

What is the Deep Web, and how do Tor’s hidden services let you trawl it?

Tor is valuable as a tool to protect the user’s privacy, but that is not its only useful function. The other, more infamous use for Tor is as a gateway into the Dark Web, the massive portion of the Web that is not indexed by search engines. You might have heard the term Dark Web thrown around in popular discourse, often in tones reserved for boogeymen and usually by people who don’t have a lot of firsthand knowledge.

There are certainly valid reasons for this, but much of the Dark Web is relatively mundane. It comprises all data that can’t be accessed through a conventional browser search, which you might be surprised to learn is a lot.

Traversing the internet is not unlike exploring the ocean. Like the surface of the world’s oceans, the surface of the internet is mapped out and easily accessible via Google search. We know more about the surface of the moon than the depths of our oceans, whose many undiscovered secrets lie beneath the surface and maneuver about the lightless depths. The bulk of the internet (around 80%) is made of pages unknown to and unaccessed by most people, locked and hidden behind passwords and protocols.

Silk Road

Tor allows webpages, like clients, to protect their anonymity, by configuring a server to connect with clients at a Tor relay in between. The server does not need to provide the IP address, and the user does not need it, instead using an onion address, a 16-character code that clients enter in place of a traditional URL.

The hidden pages on the Tor network comprise one of the most famous darknets, which are networks only accessible through specific protocols. A phrase like darknet conjures up images of shady dealings, and not without cause. Some of the most notable hidden sites traffick in illegal goods and services, like the Silk Road, which was a popular black-market darknet shut down by the FBI in 2013.

Who uses Tor, and why?

Anonymity is Tor’s bread and butter, and as such, it is probably impossible to get an accurate view of its user base. Specific trends become apparent, however, and some Tor advocates are especially vocal about their reasons for using the service.

Tor has become popular with journalists and activists in countries that impose restrictions on their citizen’s internet and expression. Countries like China are known for censoring their citizens’ access to the web, and Tor provides a way around this control. For whistleblowers, Tor provides a safe avenue to leak information to journalists.

You might not know, but when Edward Snowden released information on the NSA’s PRISM program to news organizations, he did so via Tor. One doesn’t need to be an activist, freedom fighter, or criminal to appreciate Tor, however. Many academics and ordinary citizens endorse Tor as a tool to keep privacy and freedom of expression alive in the digital age.

Despite the Tor Project’s good intentions, Tor has developed a bad reputation in the mainstream press, and not without cause. Just as large cities can attract a seedy underbelly, the growth of Tor and the cover it provides have created a refuge for unsavory individuals and activity. When you have a free-to-use privacy browser that is easily distributable and offers users both support and community forums, it’s no surprise that some of those communities form around disreputable subjects.

To be fair, the fact that Tor allows such communities to grow is troubling. However, it is essential to note that criminal activity on Tor is a consequence of the Project’s commitment to freedom of expression and not a goal. As with many things that are both advantageous and dangerous, the use of Tor is not inherently good or bad, but rather how you choose to implement it.

What are Tor’s limitations, hazards, and general safety?

While Tor is useful for browsing the web anonymously, it is not without problems. Naturally, this has drawn attention from government organizations like the NSA and FBI, who consider Tor a target of particular interest.

While the Tor network is secure from traffic analysis, Tor is a modified version of Firefox and vulnerable to attacks and exploits like any other browser. By infecting someone’s computer with malware, governments and cybercriminals can track browser activities, log keystrokes, copy webcam and surveillance footage, and even remotely access and control internet-connected devices.

Merely using Tor can make one an attractive target for the government, even if you only use it for legal purposes. Leaked NSA documents have revealed that they primarily focus on “dumb users,” aka Tor users with little internet security knowledge that the NSA can use to gain footholds in the Tor network. Given access to enough nodes, the NSA (or anyone else) could observe packets traveling and shedding layers and reconstruct the path the data traveled.

There is no way to be completely secure on the internet, and Tor does not change this. By taking reasonable precautions, it is possible to minimize the risks of browsing with Tor, like using the TorCheck website to check that your connection to Tor is secure. You can also incorporate a virtual private network or VPN to provide additional security for your digital activities.

An important caveat to remember is that Tor can’t protect any personal information that you enter into a form, so you’ll be responsible for protecting your own privacy there. As such, there is an extensive community Wiki for “Torifying” apps and software to accomplish just that.

Users should disable scripts and plugins like Adobe Flash, which can operate independently of browser settings and even transmit user data. Torrenting, a file-sharing process in which multiple people download different pieces of a file, sharing the bits they have already downloaded until the data is complete, is also something to be avoided while using Tor. Since Torrent broadcasts your IP address to whoever you’re file sharing with, onion routing becomes useless. 

If you’re scrolling through Tor’s hidden servers or anonymous servers, you should be careful about the things you click on. While many pages are socially acceptable or at the very least legal, such as sites for whistleblowers or Bitcoin exchanges, others are havens for disturbing, even criminal behavior. The cover of darkness helps rebels and monsters alike, and even naively stumbling onto a webpage containing illicit content could land you in legal trouble. To quote someone with their own famous and controversial reputation, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Editors' Recommendations