Tor’s shadowy reputation will only end if we all use it

It's not the criminal hacking browser you think it is.

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“Tor” evokes an image of the dark web; a place to hire hitmen or buy drugs that, at this point, is overrun by feds trying to catch you in the act. The reality, however, is a lot more boring than that — but it’s also more secure.

The Onion Router, now called Tor, is a privacy-focused web browser run by a nonprofit group. You can download it for free and use it to shop online or browse social media, just like you would on Chrome or Firefox or Safari, but with additional access to unlisted websites ending in .onion. This is what people think of as the “dark web,” because the sites aren’t indexed by search engines. But those sites aren’t an inherently criminal endeavor.

“This is not a hacker tool,” said Pavel Zoneff, director of strategic communications at The Tor Project. “It is a browser just as easy to use as any other browser that people are used to.”

That’s right, despite common misconceptions, Tor can be used for any internet browsing you usually do. The key difference with Tor is that the network hides your IP address and other system information for full anonymity. This may sound familiar, because it’s how a lot of people approach VPNs, but the difference is in the details.

VPNs are just encrypted tunnels hiding your traffic from one hop to another. The company behind a VPN can still access your information, sell it or pass it along to law enforcement. With Tor, there’s no link between you and your traffic, according to Jed Crandall, an associate professor at Arizona State University. Tor is built in the “higher layers” of the network and routes your traffic through separate tunnels, instead of a single encrypted tunnel. While the first tunnel may know some personal information and the last one may know the sites you visited, there is virtually nothing connecting those data points because your IP address and other identifying information are bounced from server to server into obscurity.

In simpler terms: using regular browsers directly connects you and your traffic, adding a VPN routes that information through an encrypted tunnel so that your internet service provider can’t see it and Tor scatters your identity and your search traffic until it becomes almost anonymous, and very difficult to identify.

Accessing unindexed websites adds extra perks, like secure communication. While a platform like WhatsApp offers encrypted conversations, there could be traces that the conversation happened left on the device if it’s ever investigated, according to Crandall. Tor's communication tunnels are secure and much harder to trace that the conversation ever happened.

Other use cases may include keeping the identities of sensitive populations like undocumented immigrants anonymous, trying to unionize a workplace without the company shutting it down, victims of domestic violence looking for resources without their abuser finding out or, as Crandall said, wanting to make embarrassing Google searches without related targeted ads following you around forever.

Still, with added layers of security can come some additional hiccups, like lag or longer loading times. That could be true for some users depending on what they do online, but anecdotally it's gotten a lot faster in recent years, and users have said they barely notice a difference compared to other browsers. Sameer Patil, associate professor at the School of Computing at the University of Utah, studied this by having students and staff try out Tor as their main browser. “I was personally very surprised at how many sites and things just work fine in the Tor browser. So not only did they work as intended, but they also were fast enough,” Patil said.

But even if online privacy isn’t your main concern personally, using Tor can help support industries that heavily rely on it. By using the anonymous and secure browser, you’re supporting activists, journalists and everyone else’s privacy because the more people that use it, the more secure it gets, according to Patil. If only certain sensitive groups use it, it’ll be easier to deanonymize and ultimately track down identities. When you’re one in a billion using it, that task becomes nearly impossible.