How Tor Works And Why You Should Use It
Think of Tor as an interconnecting set of tunnels and network connections deep beneath the foundation of the internet. When a person typically visits a website their computer is connected directly to the site's servers. They have the option of using a proxy that will direct their traffic, thus disguising to the website the original location of the visitor. Tor is similar to a proxy in some ways, but it is much more complex and efficient.
Tor was actually created for use by the United States Naval Research Laboratory. It was designed with the idea of protecting critical and confidential military intel for the United States Navy. It has come a long way from those days and is now available to everyone in the public. However, its high standards have never changed. It is still in use by military services, government officials, businesses, and normal people who really care about their privacy.
What Is Tor Used For?
The ultimate goal of Tor is and always has been privacy. Privacy for the user first and foremost. Whether a single individual or an entire group, users of Tor should feel comfortable in their online security. It can protect classified government communications as well as the common user trying to stay hidden from website trackers.
The great thing about Tor is that everyone can find a use for it. It's frequently utilized by activist groups that wish to protect or implement civil liberties. Individual people install and use Tor on their home computers to prevent websites or other organizations from tracking their online activity. It can also be used to bypass online website blocks.
People interested in publishing websites often use Tor as well. Publishing a website often means a lot of important, personal information is uploaded online as well. The WhoIs database contains information regarding website owners and publishers. Tor can protect these individuals by letting them publish websites without risking any personal information.
Others who need to protect their identity for safety reasons, such as journalists and organizations in foreign countries also use the Tor network. Journalists can use it for communicating with whistleblowers without fear of revealing unwanted information or anyone tracking the conversation.
People in foreign countries use Tor to browse the internet or communicate with American servers without alerting local authorities. It is a very useful safety precaution that protects the identity and information of everyone involved.
Personally, it can protect you from unwanted tracking and website traffic analysis. This is when a website uses your browsing information for a variety of reasons. When they are capable of tracking the source of your connection and your destination, then they can learn about your browsing behavior. They often then project advertisements based on your browsing habits.
It's not necessarily a government conspiracy, but a terribly invasive marketing scheme. Many people believe it is a clear violation of rights and is a subject of much debate. More than just advertisements are affected by the information. Websites can even alter the price of products based on your original location. It is discrimination at its worse, but something many e-commerce website get away with on a regular basis.
Is It Different Than A Proxy?
Yes. Tor and other proxies are often used for similar reasons, but Tor is far more efficient when it comes to protecting your information. Proxies are an extremely simple concept. You send your requests to the proxy server, which then communicates on your behalf. This disguises your real identity and location to anyone who might be on the other end.
Proxie are great for browsing without restriction. However, they have a serious flaw. You have to completely trust the proxie provider if you're intending on sharing any personal or sensitive information. The proxy server has the ability to view, store, and alter the data sent at any time.
This means they could know where from and where to the information is going. They can view individual packets and even inject ads into your browser. Unwanted advertisements will be the least of your worries if you shared any personal information or financial information while using the proxy. It's a gamble every time.
Tor is different than a proxy because it uses more than one server to protect the information. Instead, every transmission is passed through at least three servers minimum before reaching the final destination. The packets are encrypted again and again as they pass through each server. The final result is nearly impossible to trace.
There are thousands of Tor servers located all across the globe. Each transmission takes a unique path. Tor never actually sees or modifies any of the information. The actual Tor client software is only there to manage the encryption process and to select a path through the available networked servers.
The servers the information passes through before reaching the final destination are known as relays. The final relay, usually the third relay, is called the exit relay. The exit relay could be located at any location in the world. Websites can only discover the source of the last relay, but never any further down the line.
Most relays are actually operated by individuals such as yourself. There are also plenty operated by organizations in different areas of the world. Every relay that's added to the network actually makes it safer and faster. It adds a new layer to the blanket of anonymity.
Tor relays are also referred as nodes. The traffic is directed from from the original users Tor client. When they send data, their client makes a pathway through available nodes. The first two relays are referred to as middle relays. Data passes through two middle relays and one exit relay and each time it is encrypted again.
The advantage is that anyone or any website attempting to track the user will never discover any of the middle nodes. At most, they could discover the exit node, but that's a long way from the source. That makes middle relays much safer to run at home compared to exit relays, which are usually run in organizations with security.
Exit relays are actually known by all users with the Tor client installed. This allows the client to choose the appropriate exit relay. Users can appear to be coming from a specific geographical location. Owners of exit relays may be the defendants in complaints, copyright laws, and may even draw the attention of local law enforcement.
That's not to say it's at all illegal to use or operate Tor relays. It's just that the information passing through them may not be and it's only the exit node that can be tracked. That means they will think the information came from the exit node's owner. That is why it's best they are operated on specialized machines by individuals or organizations that understand the risks.
Finally, some people act as bridges. These nodes are not known to the rest of the Tor network. The reason they are used is because some countries and governments will block all IP addresses known or believed to be associated with the Tor network.
Bridges provide a way for clients to connect to the network regardless of IP blocks. They are useful for circumnavigating local censorship laws. Bridges are also safe to run because they can never be identified as the source. That pressure again falls to the exit node.
Should You Use It?
If you care about your privacy online, then definitely. If you regularly share personal or financial information, then you will find Tor extremely useful.