What is Tor?
If you are interested in online privacy, chances are, you already heard about Tor. To many, the tool is the basis of true freedom on the internet. For others, it associates with many negative controversies or confusion. Between the nodes, traffic rerouting, and unique onion URLs, it can seem too complex to be worth the effort. However, if you are curious to know what is Tor or whether you should use it - get all the answers below.
How does Tor work ?
Tor (The Onion Router) began its life in the 1990s when military organizations needed to communicate privately online. The U.S. Navy developed "onion routing," which used multiple layers of encryption to pass messages through a network. However, soon intelligence communications moved to in-house high anonymity VPN systems. They passed the Tor project to researchers, which took responsibility for maintaining it. Soon after, they released it as open-source, free software that became available for every netizen.
Now, Tor is a browser with a multi-proxy network that provides a layer of privacy. The network is made up of thousands of volunteer nodes, also called relays. Those relays "peel" one layer of encryption to send the data to the next node. One individual relay never knows the full path, which makes it difficult (but not impossible) to figure out what you are accessing. This way, the internet traffic goes through a random sequence of at least three relays before it reaches the end destination. In the basic Tor use-case scenario, Internet traffic goes through its Entry node, Middle node, and Exit node. None of the nodes keep records of connection requests and browsing habits.
Does Tor hide your IP? Yes. In fact, each relay has an IP address, which is also encrypted. All of your traffic arriving at its destination (e.g., onion website) appears to come from an exit node with the IP address of that exact relay. Hence, when you connect to the Tor network, your activity cannot be traceable back to your original IP address. An observer, like your ISP, can only see that you are connected to a node, but nothing more.
What is Tor used for ?
Tor has evolved into a mechanism that can be helpful for all wanting to benefit from online anonymity. Many netizens use the Tor browser to obtain geo-restricted content and to skirt internet censorship. Journalists, for example, use it to protect the identities of their sources, as well as themselves. Military and law enforcement agencies use Tor, too, to keep online activities secret.
Sadly, Tor has its dark side. Quite regularly, it associates with criminal activities. Many cyber criminals use the multi-proxy network because it opens access to the dark web. Also, threat actors conduct illegal business due to the anonymity the software provides. Its dark part includes many criminal networks, such as the former Silk Road. It used to be a vast marketplace where people sold and bought all sorts of illegal items, like drugs and weapons.
Does that mean Tor is illegal? Not exactly. The use of this tool is entirely legal in most jurisdictions. However, if you use it to benefit from its anonymity while you take part in illegal activities, you are, of course, a subject to the law. Hence, as long as you use Tor to do regular browsing, you have nothing to worry about.
The disadvantages of Tor
The biggest drawback of Tor is speed. Bouncing around multiple random relays slows things down rapidly. This is why the software might not be the best choice for streaming and downloading activities or anything else that requires much bandwidth.
Also, practice shows that Tor isn't 100% safe. Since the network runs on servers scattered by individual volunteers, its security depends on the owners. The truth is, by operating both entry and exit nodes, the owner can identify the user and its web requests. Hence, if the person who controls these relays wants to, they can actually see all the traffic passing by. As a result - your data is no longer private. Poor accountability and transparency of the volunteers maintaining the nodes can cause serious risks.
VPN vs. Tor
While both Tor and VPN work to protect you online, there are more differences than similarities. The Onion Routing is more about anonymity, whereas a VPN is all about privacy and security. While you can browse relatively anonymously with Tor, the browser does not protect your other internet activities and applications that run outside. If you want to encrypt all of your traffic unexceptionally, a VPN is a better choice.
Also, a VPN is an excellent balance between connection speed, ease of use, and robust security. Premium VPN, like Atlas VPN, uses military-grade encryption mechanisms and offers transparent, no-logs service. Without taking any risks, you can achieve high-end privacy here: