The Onion Router (Tor) is a scheme to provide encrypted and anonymous communication over the public Internet. Many people here use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to encrypt their Internet traffic and hide their Internet connection’s IP address. The Onion Router is like many VPNs daisy chained end-to-end. The software is free and open-source. The service is free but sometimes sluggish. The network infrastructure of Tor nodes is provided by volunteers with a variety of incentives.
The easiest way to access The Onion Router is to download and install the Tor Browser which is based on Mozilla Firefox and combined with Tor software:
When invoked the Tor Browser first establishes a circuit of Tor nodes as follows:
– A random entry node to which the Tor Browser sends web traffic.
– A random set of intermediate nodes through which the web traffic is bounced.
– A random exit node from which the web traffic will reappear on the public Internet if that’s where the target web site is.
The Tor nodes can be anywhere in the world. The web traffic is encrypted before being sent to the entry node and decrypted before being emitted by the exit node. The overall effect is the same as a VPN.
After the circuit is established the user experience is that of a highly secured web browser. The entirety of the public Internet is available including things that are only available via Tor.
Who volunteers to dedicate computer power and Internet bandwidth to Tor? Entry nodes and intermediate nodes are often maintained by freedom-loving individuals and organizations, universities, and libraries. Exit nodes, where the traffic is decrypted, are almost exclusively run by governments who are intensely interested in snooping on traffic that naive users think is secure.
This is the thing about using Tor to access web sites on the public Internet. Everything you do *will* be monitored and recorded by one government or another. The Tor Browser has the HTTPS-Only option turned on by default so web traffic will almost always have end-to-end HTTPS encryption on top of the encryption Tor provides. This means the government can only see encrypted data but you can be assured the data will be preserved. An encryption scheme that is unbreakable now may not be unbreakable in the future and there is no statute of limitations on treasonous discussion doubting the perfect wisdom of the CDC.
It’s possible to combine Tor software and web server software to make a web site that is only available via Tor. No exit node is involved so no government snooping is possible. This is the entry level of the Dark Web, the URLs of which are recognizable because they’re a name followed by a long string of random-looking characters and end with “.onion”. There is nothing illegal, immoral, or fattening about accessing a Tor-only web site but it’s true they tend to be on the dodgy side. I particularly recommend staying away from this one:
Entering “dark web site list” into the Tor Browser’s search bar, which is animated by DuckDuckGo, will produce a plethora of results but as of this writing there’s a slight snag that may affect your slumming. The Tor Project recently changed the URL naming scheme and old names will eventually stop working. Old Tor URLs have a much shorter string of random-looking characters after the name and very old Tor URLs don’t even have an initial name. Long Tor URLs like the Facebook one above are the new standard.