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 does Tor exist?

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 views 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 internet. At its most basic, it’s a series of connections between computers across great distances. 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. With the invention of Wi-Fi, satellite internet, and portable hotspots, the internet is both more accessible and more vulnerable than ever before.

Data can be intercepted or spied on in a growing variety of ways, especially if networks are not using proper encryption or have accidentally downloaded malware. On the white hate side, individuals and organizations (including governments, law enforcement ISPs, and social media companies) can access internet data to monitor who is performing illegal activities — or to collect valuable data on user behaviors and actions that can be analyzed or sold.

A growing number of solutions address these privacy issues, such as VPNs or Virtual Private Networks. Tor is another browser-based solution that many use.

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 and available across most platforms, including Linux. 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.

Navigating the deep web

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 deep web, the massive portion of the web that is not indexed by search engines. The other popular term, dark web, generally refers to all the illegal or troubling activity that can happen on the deep web, but the two aren’t necessarily interchangeable, and users can trawl the deep web without nefarious intent.

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. 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. Agencies like the CIA are also active on Tor to make it easier to receive tips and information.

Despite the Tor Project’s good intentions, Tor has developed a bad reputation in the mainstream press, and not without cause. 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. Tor fights back against this connotation with PrivChat webinars from some of its popular users in human rights and pushes for democracy, as well as guides for those operating under hostile governments to help them stay safe.

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 since Tor is free and open-source software, it isn’t able to protect any personal information that you choose to enter into a form. Just like always, you need to use common sense when browsing the internet and sharing information. That said, you can access a lot of information from experienced users in the extensive community Wiki for “Torifying” apps and software. There is plenty of information and support available so that you can learn the best ways to protect your personal information adequately.

Also keep in mind is that users may need to disable certain scripts and plugins, so you may not be able to run everything you want on Tor. And if you’re thinking about using Tor to download torrents, think again. Torrenting is a file-sharing process that relies on the P2P protocol. Users download bits of a file from others and share the bits they have acquired with users who are downloading the same file. This protocol makes your IP address visible to the users you share files with, making onion routing pointless.

If you decide to visit Tor’s hidden or anonymous servers, be mindful of the sites you visit. While many pages tend to be socially acceptable or at the very least legal, such as sites for whistleblowers or Bitcoin exchanges, some of the other sites are havens for disturbing and even criminal behavior.

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