The return of war to Europe’s borders has once again highlighted the importance of online privacy.
Russians risk arrest and detention simply for suggesting a public protest against the war on social media, while people who venture onto the streets in defiance of the Kremlin could receive 15 years in prison.
Yet the ability to communicate online is arguably most important in times of war, which is where encrypted online platforms like Tor come in.
This is a timely moment to consider potential uses for a platform co-developed by the US military, and part-funded by the CIA.
In essence, it’s a sluggish web portal reminiscent of Microsoft’s old Internet Explorer, which ensures the things individual users view and do can’t subsequently be traced back to them.
If you need a quick introduction to how this web browser randomly distributes web traffic to protect the anonymity of individual users, this guide to Tor explains everything you need to know.
These are five of the leading Tor browser uses.
1. Fact-finding and news
Having underpinned much of the Arab Spring pro-democracy campaigns in the last decade, Tor is now one of the few communications tools the Russians can’t monitor or censor.
It’s no coincidence that the BBC recently launched a Tor version of its news site, enabling citizens in countries whose governments have blocked BBC websites to view its content.
The CIA did something similar three years ago, allowing anyone to discreetly (and securely) submit information or browse an extensive online document repository for information.
2. Research and browsing
Imagine you share a computer with your spouse, and want to plan a surprise holiday or experience. Even an anonymous browser window could subsequently give the game away.
If you don’t log into sites you’re already registered with on the surface web, Tor provides a trail-free way of researching and buying anything from jewellery to plane tickets.
Previous browsing sessions aren’t saved, web browsers won’t suggest past URL/search engine queries as predictive entries, and there’ll be no cookies stored on sites you visited.
3. Adult content
Among the many potential Tor browser uses is the ability to securely access adult content – though nobody should view the illegal material squirreled away at certain .onion addresses.
Surface websites are accessible via Tor’s web browser just as they would be through Chrome or Safari, albeit with no tell-tale footprints left behind.
This can benefit users whose mobile networks or ISPs automatically block all age-restricted websites, or people wanting to explore their sexuality without risk of discovery.
The lack of any breadcrumb trails makes Tor a go-to location for revealing corporate malpractice and shining a harsh light on corruption.
Investigative journalists conduct interviews and research with experts whose voices might not otherwise be heard, across secure communications platforms specific to Tor.
Wikileaks is perhaps the most famous example of Tor-based whistleblowing, but the Guardian and New York Times newspapers are also enthusiastic advocates.
5. Debate and discussion
While some dark web forums contain content that might offend and even shock, the same is increasingly true of surface web portals like Facebook and Twitter.
The presence of dedicated forums for minority interest groups may be among the more contentious Tor browser uses, but total anonymity does at least allow people to speak openly.
Many people post on Tor message boards and forums every day, often sparking conversations which – for better or worse – would never take place on a surface website like Reddit or Twitter.