What Is Tor?
The Tor Network — often referred to as just “Tor” — is a free, open-source system designed to enable anonymous communication on the web. The name is derived from the original project name: “The Onion Router”.
The Tor Network anonymizes your online activity by encrypting your communications and randomly bouncing them through a global network of access points, or ‘nodes’, which are all maintained by volunteers.
The most common way to use Tor is through the Tor Browser. This is a free, Firefox-based application that can be downloaded and installed on your computer. The Tor Browser uses the Tor network to conceal your identity, location, and online activity from tracking or surveillance.
The technology was originally designed for the US military and is favored by political activists and privacy advocates — as well as by some more unsavory characters looking to evade detection. It helps you access content which has been blocked by your country or your internet service provider (ISP).
Most importantly, it hides your identity from both the websites you visit and the network itself.
To summarize, the Tor Network allows you to:
- Hide your IP address from the websites you visit.
- Access ‘hidden’ .onion domains.
- Anonymise your online activity.
- Communicate confidentially.
- Access censored content.
The size of the infrastructure around Tor and the lack of any centralized authority has moved it into the mainstream over the last decade. However, the trade-off for this large network of community-managed nodes is an unreliable connection and often very slow speeds.
The Tor network remains most active in Europe and North America, but its reach is steadily expanding across the world. It is particularly popular in countries where online communication is monitored or censored and a lack of privacy could result in jail time.
Tor can be used with a variety of operating systems and protocols, but the vast majority of users run it on a computer using the Tor browser. For details on how to install and use the Tor browser, you can skip straight to How Do I Use Tor?
Tor also lets you access a number of unlisted websites with the .onion domain name — part of the so-called ‘Dark Web’. The most notorious of these sites is the now shut-down Silk Road marketplace, but there are also less sinister sites in operation such as a mirror of BBC News designed to beat censorship.
Tor is undoubtedly the cheapest privacy tool around. But there are risks inherent to using Tor. Unless you alter your browsing habits, you are at risk of exposing your true IP address or other personally identifiable information: completely wrecking your anonymity. You can learn more about this in our section on How to Stay Safe Using Tor.
We do not condone using Tor (or a VPN) for anything illegal, and recommend you stay away from the Dark Web as a general precaution.