The web services we use offer speed and convenience at the expense of our online privacy. In your quest to communicate and transact privately online, you may find yourself using software and services that have been associated with the darker side of the ‘net.
The Onion Browser — more commonly known as ‘Tor’ — is an anonymous browsing tool that was originally designed for secret US Navy communications. Now, it’s used for two very different purposes: to distribute questionable content, and to offer privacy protection beyond that of a mainstream web browser.
Many people are worried about that questionable content — a network of hidden sites we sometimes call the “dark web”. But Tor’s co-creator, Roger Dingledine, said at Defcon 2017 that 97% of Tor traffic consists of ordinary people going to “ordinary websites on the internet”. As VPN bans in China and Russia take hold, and politicians prepare the ground to ban encryption, we could see that percentage increase.
How is Tor Used?
We often call Tor a browser, but that’s only part of the story. Behind the software, there’s a network of servers, or “nodes”, that bounce encrypted web traffic back and forth.
These nodes are the key component in obfuscating individual users’ metadata. When a Tor user visits a website, the traffic appears (in most cases) to come from an exit node, not the original user.
This method offers good privacy protection when you browse ordinary websites — far better than any mainstream browser. You’ll find that it’s slow, but relatively safe.
Tor is a brilliant privacy tool that also gives access to the dark web, inaccessible with normal browsers.
The other purpose of Tor is to provide access to HTML pages that are not available on the “regular” world wide web. This so-called dark web has been growing steadily since 2004; the Hidden Wiki — which can be accessed using Tor at kpvz7ki2v5agwt35.onion — lists some of the hidden services (Tor sites) that are operational. It’s estimated that there are half a million hidden services, from search engines and ecommerce sites to marketplaces selling things that would land you in jail.
Tor Isn’t Perfect
Before you download Tor, it’s important to recognize those two distinct uses.
It works brilliantly as a privacy shield for ordinary web browsing, and can help to protect you against government snooping and surveillance.
But you can stumble upon disturbing or illegal content without really trying, which is why you need to be diligent in its use.
Dingledine says that the dark web is insignificant compared to the benefits that Tor provides. And evidence suggests he is right. The biggest marketplace on Tor until it was recently taken down by the FBI, AlphaBay, was estimated to have more than 200,000 users. It’s a significant number, but it’s small fry compared to the user base for a regular ecommerce site on the web.
We Need Tor — Despite the Risks
If surveillance increases, our right to privacy may drive us towards the dark web. China and Iran have banned Tor; the UK government has tried it and failed. As Dingledine rightly points out, “the line is getting a lot more blurry between the free countries, and the un-free countries”.
Western leaders are building the machinery of mass surveillance before our eyes. The UK’s 2016 “Snoopers’ Charter” was just the first step. In 2017, the US has already greenlit the sale of your private browsing data without your explicit permission, and Australians are now monitored by their ISPs.
Things are changing — and fast. The kind of unlawful surveillance that Edward Snowden revealed is now legal, widespread, and likely to expand rapidly in the next few years.
Tor will not solve this problem. It’s possible that simply using Tor could mark you out as a person of interest, for example. And aside from the risk of coming across unsavory content, your IP address could theoretically still be exposed. It’s strongly suspected that the FBI runs many of the exit nodes that traffic flows through, and the same organization is believed to have developed browser exploits and other tricks that could expose your identity.
But for people in countries all over the world, there is simply no better option to defend their personal privacy online.
Be Safe on Tor
Tor’s website doesn’t talk much about the risks of the dark web. That’s understandable; the world wide web arguably has its own seedy neighborhoods. It’s a question of being sensible, and knowing what not to click on.
Tor has its quirks so read our tips to make sure you stay safe.
Providing you use Tor sensibly, you can boost your privacy with little risk, even if it isn’t guaranteed to be totally anonymous. We recommend that you:
- Disable images so that you don’t unwittingly download content that could get you in trouble
- Ensure your antivirus software is up-to-date, and assume all downloadable files could theoretically be malware
- Install Tor inside a virtual machine that you can trash when you’re done, if your usage is particularly sensitive
- To avoid IP leaks, switch on your VPN before starting Tor so that your real IP is never exposed
Driven to the Dark Web?
The rights that we have are determined by whoever is in power at any given time. Our privacy is only guaranteed if our government defends it. And if governments start to demand that backdoors are put into encryption, we will need services like Tor more than ever.
Protesters and campaign groups already use services like Tor to create safe ways to communicate, organize, and protest. Providing we — and our kids — are aware of the risks of Tor and the entire internet, these services could hold the key to our future privacy online.