What is Tor? A Beginner’s Guide

Posted on Dec 22, 2018 by Sean Doyle

When you use the Internet, your data can be collected by the websites you visit, ISPs, governments, advertisers, intruders, and more. One of the easiest and most affordable ways to protect your data is to use Tor. But, what is Tor, what does Tor do, and who uses Tor?

What is Tor?

Tor, an acronym for The Onion Router, is free software and an open source network made up of thousands of volunteer relays around the world. Tor was developed at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the mid-1900s as The Onion Routing program. Tor is the next-generation of the original program and is referred to a The Tor Project.

When you hear about Tor, you are probably hearing about Tor browser or Tor network. Tor browser is a modified version of Mozilla Firefox that lets you use Tor on Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS, or GNU/Linux. It can run off of a USB flash drive or be download onto your computer. The Tor network is made up of thousands of global relays. When you use Tor browser over the Tor network, your data is encrypted and the data you send and receive is dispatched through a path of randomly generated relays. Each relay decrypts a layer of encryption to reveal the next relay to pass the remaining data to. The final relay, or the exit node, decrypts the innermost layer of your data and sends the original data to its final destination. In addition, none of the relays log their connections, so there is no way for a relay to see the traffic they handle and your actual IP address is never revealed.

What Does Tor Do?

The Tor network provides you with a layer of privacy and security while you use the Internet. Tor is of use to anyone who wants to keep their Internet activities private and out of the hands of advertisers, websites, ISPs, governments, and other parties.

Aside from offering anonymous browsing, Tor also hosts .onion sites that can only be accessed by other Tor users. The .onion sites are only hosted on Tor servers and are hidden by randomly generated paths so no one can pinpoint the location of their servers.

Who Uses Tor?

This day in age, everyone is tracking you online whether it’s for surveillance, analytical reasons, or marketing purposes. The general Tor user uses Tor to avoid being tracked and to keep a sense of privacy. Aside from those who are generally conscious of their online privacy while they browse the Internet, Tor has many uses for different people.

  • Journalists use Tor to ensure their privacy and safety.
  • Bloggers are often sued for saying perfectly legal things online and Tor helps them remain anonymous.
  • IT professionals use Tor to perform tests on their own security systems and obtain access to the Internet while leaving security policies intact.
  • Law enforcement uses Tor to remain anonymous when conducting online surveillance and undercover operations.
  • Militaries use Tor to remain hidden from insurgents who monitor Internet traffic and gather intelligence.
  • Activists and whistleblowers use Tor to remain anonymous.

How to Get Tor

Tor is free and easy to use. You don’t have to set anything up, it’s essentially plug-and-play. To get the Tor browser, simply download and install the software from TorProject.org