The TOR (The Onion Router) browser is widely used for online users seeking privacy and anonymity. Developed by the US Naval Research Department in the mid-90s, the TOR network routes internet traffic through multiple relays to conceal user locations and activities from surveillance and tracking. Despite its popularity, TOR is not without limitations and risks, particularly when it comes to security and privacy.
This network is utilized by journalists, activists, and individuals seeking to protect their online identity and freedom of expression. Unfortunately, it is also used by criminals and dark web marketplaces. Understanding the benefits and drawbacks of TOR in today’s digital landscape is crucial. In this article, we will delve into the inner workings of the TOR network, its uses, and its connection to the dark web.
Table of Contents
- TOR and the Dark Web
- The TOR Network Ecosystem
- Most Virtuous and Most Wanted on TOR Network
- What would a sceptic say about TOR Network?
TOR and the Dark Web
The Dark Web, also referred to as the Deep Web, is a section of the internet that cannot be accessed through conventional search engines. Accessing it requires specific software or authorization. The TOR (The Onion Router) network is a well-known example of the dark web and can be described as a decentralized network of servers.
Users who enter the TOR network become part of the network and can serve as both content hosts and relay nodes. The network of relay nodes allows users to bounce their connection around the world, making it challenging for anyone to track a user’s location. This is because multiple ISPs and devices would be involved in an investigation.
To enhance user privacy, the TOR network employs various security measures such as multiple layers of encryption, no logging of user activities, and anonymous IP addresses. The TOR network assigns users a new, random IP address for each session, making it difficult to track online activity based on this information.
The TOR network has existed for over 20 years, and its use is widespread, leading to the association of the dark web with the TOR browser. Although anonymous navigation of the dark web is one possible use of the TOR network, it offers other functionalities worth exploring.
The TOR Network Ecosystem
Although TOR Browser is particularly efficient at navigating the dark web, it can also be used for other everyday use cases. With the same security-oriented approach, TOR Network has developed various functionalities, such as Instant Messaging through TOR Chat.
Also, some Linux operating systems, such as Tails OS, implement TOR Network as the default network connection functionalities, turning it into a killswitch for network privacy, as the connection is forced through TOR Network as long as the OS is running.
If you are a researcher or writer and need metrics about Dark Web traffic, you can use TOR Metrics, a completely free source of information that you can use to have accurate statistics and metrics.
You can share files through TOR Network using OnionShare or install the TORBirdy plugin on Mozilla Thunderbird to anonymise emails. You can also implement the connection to TOR Network on more advanced levels with tools like TOR2Web, a gateway service that allows users to access TOR services on the regular web browser (allowing you to access TOR Network without TOR Browser), or Torify, a tool that routes connection of any application to TOR Network.
The applicability and versatility of TOR Network and its ecosystem of free-to-use, open-source apps made it a popular and almost immediate option for everyone who wants to navigate both the regular and dark web anonymously.
This, unfortunately, implies that TOR is a popular choice among people who want to protect their privacy to safely engage in illegal activities on the dark web, such as buying and selling drugs, weapons, and stolen data.
There is often news surrounding the dark web, many of which contribute to mystifying the aura of the TOR Network as well, but creating more myth than clarity is not helpful, which is why, in the next section, I will review some facts about licit and illicit use of TOR Network that created some of the most vibrant debates.
Most Virtuous and Most Wanted on TOR Network
“The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance” is a quote often credited to various authors, yet its true origin remains uncertain. Nevertheless, this quote fits well with the TOR Network, as the anonymity it provides has been used for various morally questionable purposes.
On the one hand, the TOR Network and its related ecosystem provide journalists and whistleblowers with a valuable tool to conduct their activities safely. The right to whistleblow is protected in many private companies today as it serves as a fail-safe against corrupt power. In this sense, the TOR Network helps people feel secure when speaking out against wrongdoing, granting them anonymity as a shield.
Moreover, the TOR Network allows millions of users to bypass censorship and government blocks, providing access to diverse information and audiences that would otherwise be restricted. However, one could argue that circumvention of state-imposed limitations should not be excused, no matter how well-intentioned. Countries impose secrecy and censorship for reasons such as national security and public order.
Unfortunately, the TOR Network has a notorious reputation for being used to distribute illegal and harmful items such as drugs and child pornography. While numerous dark web sites claim to offer these services, it is essential to note that most sites are fraudulent and should not be trusted. Despite this, there have been instances of legitimate online marketplaces, such as The Silk Road and the Playpen investigation, where weapons, drugs, and child porn were openly traded.
The Silk Road was an online marketplace that enabled users to buy and sell illegal goods and services anonymously. The FBI began investigating in 2011 and eventually arrested Ross Ulbricht, the founder and operator, in 2013. He was sentenced to life in prison. The Playpen investigation occurred between 2014 and 2015, resulting in the arrest of multiple individuals who distributed child pornography through the site. In both cases, using the TOR Network allowed the operators to remain anonymous for too long.
These investigations have highlighted the TOR Network’s moral concerns and its limitations as an anonymity shield. The limitations of the TOR Network will be discussed in the next section.
What would a sceptic say about TOR Network?
The TOR Network provides security and privacy to a certain extent, but it also has some significant limitations that should be considered. These limitations include the following:
- End-to-end vulnerabilities: The TOR Network is vulnerable to attacks compromising its entry or exit nodes, allowing an attacker to monitor or alter the traffic passing through them. Despite its anonymity features, the machines on the network are still prone to other forms of attack.
- Reliance on volunteers: The TOR Network relies on volunteers to run its nodes, which increases the risk of malicious nodes being introduced into the network. This can limit the network’s reliability.
- Centralized infrastructure: Despite its decentralized design, the TOR Network still relies on centralized infrastructure for updating its software and handling some of its operations. This raises concerns about the trustworthiness and consistency of the updates.
These limitations may discourage some users from using the TOR Network. However, its usefulness and applicability should be evaluated compared to the alternatives, and the fact that some limitations apply to it should not hinder its use.
Before engaging in any activity on the TOR Network, it is essential to consider all alternative options carefully. While the anonymity and privacy offered by TOR are unparalleled, its open-source nature can make it a less reliable choice for professional use. If you are well-versed in internet and browsing technologies, the community and myths surrounding TOR should not be a concern. However, if you are not familiar with these technologies, it is recommended to consider these factors before using TOR.