Tor Beginners Guide

Tor Beginners Guide

What is Tor?

First, the interface, or “gateway” to Tor, is simply a web browser like Internet Explorer or Chrome, but this one is based on Mozilla Firefox and is specially configured with settings specific to Tor and maintaining privacy. This program is what you use to access the Tor “network”, where the real magic happens.

A computer network is simply a collection of two or more computers connected together via routers, switches, modems, hubs or any other devices that allow computers to talk to each other.

The Tor network (or simply “Tor”) is a special kind of network, though. Tor is made up of close to 7,000 relays and close to 3,000 bridges at the time of writing.

All of the relays and bridges are run, believe it or not, by volunteers–people donating some of their bandwidth and computing power to expand Tor’s capabilities.

Tor is setup this way to allow an internet user to surf the web anonymously by hiding their internet address (IP address) from the website and search engines that they access via Tor and by hiding their internet traffic from anyone monitoring their end of the connection. An observer will only see that the user is connected to Tor, and not see any other websites or online resources being sent to the user’s computer.

Also, as another part of the overall network, Tor offers certain hidden services in the form of .onion sites and an instant messaging server. The .onion sites are websites hosted on Tor servers and hidden by randomly generating paths to them from “introductory points” in the network. This allows users to access the sites, but not pinpoint the location of the servers hosting them.

How does it do that?

A relay is a computer inside Tor, listed in the main directory, that receives internet signals from another relay and passes that signal on to the next relay in the path. For each connection request (e.g. website visited) the path is randomly generated. None of the relays keep records of these connections, so there is no way for any relay to report on the traffic that it has handled.

A bridge is simply a hidden relay, meaning it is not listed in the main Tor directory of relays. These are provided for people who are unable to access Tor with the normal setup. This can be because the network they are using has a proxy (a sort of intermediary between the user’s computer and the internet gateway) that has been configured to block Tor traffic.

The last relay in the path is the “exit point”. The exit point is the only part of the network that actually connects to the server that the user is trying to access and is therefore the only bit that the server sees and it can only log the IP address of that relay.

So long as the user does not log in to that server with an existing account, that server (and it’s administrators) will have no way of knowing the identity of the person on the other side of Tor. It merely receives a request from the exit point for whatever services it’s offering and must respond to such a request, but it only knows that it is sending that information back to a relay. Beyond that, it hasn’t got a clue where that data will end up.

Am I completely anonymous using Tor?

Tor keeps the data traffic anonymous. The rest is entirely up to you. Some standard tips include:

  • Don’t provide any identifying information to websites while browsing anonymously
  • Don’t log in to any online accounts
  • Stay away from heavy traffic or heavy bandwidth sites

Keep in mind that because your information is being routed through a series of dedicated relays, the speed will not be what you are used to. It will be considerably lower than what you’re used to, actually. That is because the data is taking a much more circuitous path than normal and will be hampered by:

  • The speed of the internet connections of the various relays along that path
  • The amount of traffic on those relays
  • The overall congestion of Tor at that particular time
  • All the normal internet congestion that fluctuates throughout the day

Overall, Tor can be a valuable tool in keeping you and yours safe from prying eyes, but at a cost. You will need to brush up on your own skills of discernment when it comes to what information you give away while surfing and what you use it for.

There is the risk that your internet provider or the company where you work may be actively trying to block the use of Tor on their network. In which case you will need to learn a bit about using bridges or get a VPN to allow you access (subjects that will be addressed in later articles on optimizing the Tor experience).