The TOR Network – A Pocket Guide

HEALTH WARNING …

This is not a subject I recommend to novices and the following is provided to explain what the TOR network is and the implications of using it. It is not a recommendation to use this network.


What is the TOR Network?

TOR stands for ‘The Onion Router’ and was setup by the US Department of the Navy to provide a private communications network for military use and people in oppressed countries.  It has since been handed over to a foundation that is funded by the US military, industry and individuals by donations.  If you want to learn more about the TOR network then look at the TOR Projects website which will provide you with a lot of the more technical information and how it is funded.

I will use the term ‘message’ to describe any messaging over the TOR network. This could be regular access to surface websites, or deep websites, Instant messaging, Email, etc.

TOR works along the principles of wrapping your message in multiple layers of encryption. As your message passes through various nodes, a layer of encryption is stripped off until it gets to the destination at which point the source of the message has been totally obscured. On the return message the layers of encryption are reapplied and stripped off as the message makes its way back to you. This is like pealing layers of an onion, hence the name.

The TOR network consists of the following:

  • Entry nodes, where you can initiate contact with the TOR Network and gain access
  • Exit nodes, where you exit the the network
  • Routing nodes that provide a means to route messages between the entry and exit nodes
  • Nodes that contain content, e.g. deep web websites.

You gain access to the TOR Network via an entry node, which can be in your country of origin, or another country. Similarly your exit node can be in your country of origin or in another country. By exiting the TOR network in a different country, this can also serve to get round geo-blocking of services as you can with a VPN. However the entry and exit nodes being hosted in different countries means you are obscuring where you are.

You often find nodes within the TOR network offer multiple functions (e.g. as an entry/exit node as well as content). You can find a more detailed overview of the TOR Network on the TOR Projects Help Pages.

Access to the TOR Network

Access to the TOR network is provided via the TOR Browser, which is a highly configured and customised version of the FireFox browser.  It establishes a connection to the TOR network prior to routing any information.  You can use the TOR Browser on most platforms, including now on Android.

TOR specific websites cannot be accessed via the usual http/https URL’s, and require a ‘.onion’ address.  However, you can access regular websites via the TOR Browser. 

The TOR Browser is also configured for privacy, for example by not allowing tracking cookies of any kind and the browser history (cache, cookies, etc.) is cleared when you exit the browser (which can also be configured on the regular FireFox browser).  As a result, some of the regular websites you visit using the TOR Browser may not work properly. Some services also block access from the TOR network (e.g. LastPass can be configured in this way). As a result, you may find you will not be able to access your websites at all.

If you use the TOR network to access regular websites, once you exit the TOR network onto the regular internet, you are in clear water again and can be tracked. The TOR Browser does provide the best safeguards to limit the ability for any service to track you, but once you login into the service they own you. 

If you use the TOR network, you should steer clear of the dark and deep web and specifically the .onion websites as this is where illegal goods and services are often sold.  However, if you want to communicate in an ultra-private manner, then some private messaging services are available that only communicate within the TOR Network.

A Few Words of Warning

You should know that some services block access from the TOR network, so you could end up being locked out of your favourite websites. As you are accessing the TOR network from an ISP, they can track the initial connection to the TOR network and you could find yourself being actively watched by law enforcement and intelligence agencies particularly in oppressive countries. If you are going to access the TOR network, you are better to do it from a TOR friendly VPN (e.g. the TOR variant of NordVPN).

Accessing the TOR network from some countries is also banned, punishable by law so do your research before you travel. Some countries, like China and Iran, have managed to block access to the TOR network because of the way they have set up the internet in these countries. Russia is also actively researching ways to decrypt the TOR network and render it useless.

On Android, you can also use OrBot, which is a free VPN/Proxy that routes through the TOR network and can set itself up on your Android device as a VPN.  This is sponsored by the TOR Project.  It essentially makes your browser and apps route all information through the TOR network.

If you are using a regular Operating System (e.g. Windows, MAC OS, Linux) then these operating systems may log your access to the TOR network. They also leak telemetry back to their manufacturers and this may also reveal your access to the TOR network – it will definitely show your use of the TOR Browser as an application.

Using the TOR Network is not illegal, but it should be noted that the majority of people using it are using it for anonymity and possibly for illegal activities (e.g. cyber crime, whistle blowing). Not only may TOR not keep you totally hidden from law enforcement (see above), using TOR may actually draw their attention as the NSA and FBI have specifically targeted TOR users in the past. In addition your ISP may not be thrilled about it either as in the past Comcast has threatened to cut service to customers using TOR.

Law enforcement have seeded the TOR network entry and exit nodes, as well as honey pot websites in an attempt to trap illegal activity and trace users back to a physical address (i.e. if you buy something illegal on the deep web, you will eventually want to take delivery of it in the real world).

Conclusion

The TOR network isn’t for the feint hearted and not a safe playground even for experienced people (even more so than the regular internet).  While I have attempted to provide a broad outline of the TOR network, I will not go as far as recommending it as an alternative to a VPN.  You would be better advised to subscribe to one of the many VPN services to promote some degree of privacy.

My standing advice is to avoid the urge to use the TOR network from your regular ISP – it will get logged.

If you are going to use the TOR network do it from an OS like Tails, which is a highly configured version of Linux for privacy which routes all network traffic through the TOR network and operates from a USB Key or DVD as it cannot be installed natively.

In addition, I do not recommend use of the TOR network for general use as it will get noticed. There are far less invasive techniques you can use to maintain a degree of privacy without using TOR (look out for my blog on this).

You may also like to read my blog on the Deep and Dark Web.


Headline Image courtesy of the TOR Project ©
Tor Onion Logo, U.S. Trademark Registration No. 3,465,433
Tor, U.S. Registration No. 3,465,432.

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