You’ve probably heard of the Tor Browser. The project is the public face of the so-called Deep Web or Dark Web, an un-indexed collection of websites that – depending on your point of view – represents the most sinister or the most free part of the Internet.
There are two main reasons you might want to use Tor. The first is to protect your online privacy and get past censors. Tor stands for “the onion router,” and like an onion it has many layers – of encryption. But recently the strength of that encryption has been called into doubt, following the FBI’s successful takedown of the Silk Road website.
The second reason to use Tor is to explore the Deep Web, which can expand your online horizons in both exciting and disturbing ways. Here’s our review of the Tor Browser.
A web interface much like any other
Given the Deep Web’s association with criminal activity and questionable content, downloading the Tor Browser can feel a little dangerous. The fact that the NSA likely targets anyone who is “Tor-curious” only makes this feeling worse.
That said, the first thing you’ll notice about Tor is how ordinary it looks. Installing Tor is actually as easy and painless as Chrome or Firefox, and it works a lot like them too. One difference is that it takes a few moments to configure itself every time you start it.
Unblocking the Internet
One of the simplest benefits of Tor is unblocking censored websites. If you’re in a country where certain social media, news or peer-to-peer sites are blocked, the Tor Browser will usually unblock them for you.
One caveat is that many sites will recognize that you’re using Tor and ask you to complete a captcha. This can slow down browsing and become annoying after a while.
How Tor anonymity works
So how does Tor get past censorship and protect your browsing privacy? It’s all about encrypting your traffic in multiple layers (hence the name “The Onion Router”).
Your traffic is then relayed through a worldwide network of open connections – around 6,000 of them, all run by volunteers. Each relay decodes a layer of encryption on your data. By the time your traffic reaches its destination, it’s fully decrypted.
Most importantly, the process makes it very difficult to trace data back to you or your location. So you can browse anonymously.
How secure is Tor?
That said, Tor isn’t 100% secure. Many illegal marketplaces use Tor and the Deep Web to operate anonymously. Yet in November 2015, the FBI was able to navigate through Tor’s anonymity network to identify and arrest the operators of the infamous Silk Road marketplace.
It’s unlikely, however, that the Feds would go to such trouble to identify your activity on Tor – provided you aren’t running a highly illegal website, of course.
Exploring the Deep Web
A second reason you might want to try Tor is curiosity about the Deep Web. Deep Web sites are instantly recognizable by their ‘.onion’ domain extensions, and they can only be accessed from Tor-enabled browsers.
Research suggests that the most common kinds of activity found on the Dark Web include drug trading, gambling, pornography, hacking and other things too unsavory to mention. Dip your toe into this murky world at your own risk.
For links to legal Deep Web sites covering privacy, financial services and more, The Hidden Wiki is a good place to start. The site (at http://kpvz7ki2v5agwt35.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page) can only be accessed from Tor-enabled browsers.
Verdict: Use Tor at your own risk
Tor is a free and functional web browser that increases your freedom and privacy online. But it comes with some warnings – like how it can draw the attention of law enforcement agencies, and how it opens a gateway to dubious content you might prefer to steer clear of. Use Tor at your own risk.