The internet has brought knowledge and connection to the world, but when misused, it also has vast potential to invade any individual’s privacy. As people wake up to this reality, many tools have emerged to combat privacy violations and bolster online security. The Tor Network and Tor Browser may be the most unique.
There are many options for virtual private networks (VPNs), password managers and malware scanners, but Tor (an acronym for The Onion Router) stands in a class by itself. It’s the only popular online security tool to be entirely decentralized. A volunteer team performs basic upkeep, but the bulk of the network is run by anonymous node managers.
Here’s how Tor purports to keep you safe online. First, you’ll have to download Tor Browser, a free web browser maintained by the nonprofit Tor Project organization. (Note that the Tor Project has nothing to do with TorGuard VPN.)
Every time you visit a page in Tor Browser, your internet connection bounces through several of Tor’s volunteer-run nodes, gaining a new layer of encryption each time. When it reaches the last node, called the “exit node,” all those layers are decrypted in order. They’re “peeled back” like the layers of an onion, giving us the term “onion routing.”
The overall concept is similar to that of a VPN: if cybercriminals, corporations and the government can’t see the IP address where your browsing originates, they won’t be able to snoop on your activity. Encryption makes it impossible to follow you back to your real identity.
However, Tor also aims to solve the main weakness of VPNs — the fact that the VPN itself can still see your browsing activity if it chooses. Many VPNs have extensive privacy policies, independent audits and RAM-only servers to guarantee this, but Tor goes a step further by outsourcing its relays to anonymous volunteers.
Anyone with the right server setup can be a relay manager, and relay managers are not required to communicate their identities to the Tor Project. Moreover, since one relay manager can’t follow your progress to another relay, your online activity should be totally anonymous. It’s like giving out parts of a coded message so nobody can decode the whole thing.
Tor Browser also allows users to visit .onion pages, the anonymized servers that form the bulk of the Dark Web. While frequently used by hackers and other criminals, .onion sites can also provide an important refuge for whistleblowers and activists.
Though it fixes a VPN vulnerability, the Tor network is not without its own dangers. The lack of oversight for node managers is a double-edged sword, and allows malicious actors to creep in. This is especially dangerous for exit nodes, which can see unencrypted activity. Tor project managers often have to remove exit nodes that turn out to be run by state intelligence agencies.
Privacy Journal’s articles on the Tor network have the full story on when and how to use Tor for your online security. Check out our expert guides below.