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How does the Tor browser work?

Friday, 7 February, 2020

When people talk about the Dark Web, they sometimes adopt a slightly quieter tone of voice, as if discussing something taboo and illicit.

The same is often true for the Tor browser.

Intended to provide a private and decentralised online experience, Tor is the only web browser capable of displaying the Dark Web’s trove of uncensored content.

Many people mistakenly think installing Tor onto their devices is something to be ashamed of, or constitutes a criminal act. Googling “Tor illegal” brings up 21 million results.

In fact, Tor is most definitely legal. It’s free to install on any desktop or laptop computer, tablet or smartphone. It’s a serviceable web browser in its own right. And it’s CIA-endorsed.

Not only did the American military develop and part-fund the Tor Project, the CIA recently launched a Tor copy of its website, so people can browse and get in touch anonymously.

Tor underpinned the Arab Spring uprising of 2010, and it’s helped journalists around the world to talk to activists and whistle-blowers who wouldn’t otherwise have broken cover.

As such, the Tor browser is a vital tool for modern communication. But how does it access Dark Web content?

String theory

In many respects, the Dark Web is simply the Surface Web with less presentation skills.

There’s no search engine optimisation down here, because site administrators and hosts are usually publishing content which isn’t meant for mainstream audiences.

A site publicising itself as a whistle-blower forum would quickly attract unwanted attention, whereas greater discretion often helps the site to remain operational and effective.

Search engines usually struggle to unearth Dark Web pages, though some – like the oddly-named DuckDuckGo – will display limited results when used in conjunction with Tor.

To find websites of interest, you typically need to visit directories containing lists of hyperlinked URLs.

The discreet nature of Dark Web hosting means the Tor Browser isn’t generally asked to access short, self-explanatory Surface Web addresses like broadbanddeals.co.uk.

Anonymity extends to the sites themselves, with addresses that give no clue to their origins.

The CIA website mentioned earlier is an exception, though it’s still located at the lengthy address “ciadotgov4sjwlzihbbgxnqg3xiyrg7so2r2o3lt5wz5ypk4sxyjstad.onion”.

(It’s much easier to click a link or copy and paste a .onion address than manually typing it into the address bar, one character at a time).

Tor is the only browser capable of following the convoluted path taken by .onion address strings, with individual data packets bouncing all round the world en route to your device.

This makes it impractical to identify whose Tor browser requested access to a particular page. There are no cookies or tracking ads here.

Tor doesn’t save any user data when a browsing session ends, and it’s impossible to spy on data packets as they randomly bounce from one internet node to another.

Party like it’s 1999

Because each data packet is encrypted and pinballed between numerous servers, Tor runs so slowly that even low-resolution video content frequently won’t display.

It’s all a world away from the slickness of Chrome or Firefox, even though the latter’s parent company Mozilla donated over $300,000 to the Tor Project last year.

However, like Navigator and Internet Explorer, a first-time user of Tor will quickly make sense of how everything works.

It’s installed and opened just like any other web browser, revealing an address bar and a main content window flanked by ancillary buttons.

There are multiple webpage tabs, a prominent Security Settings button and an Options menu offering control over everything from home pages to applications.

And while user forums are minefields of technical language and complex coding discussions, there is a thriving community waiting to answer queries or tackle issues.

Indeed, if you don’t mind slow response times, Tor could be the only web browser you need to have on your desktop or laptop computer.

It’s the only one capable of viewing content beyond the SEO-focused Surface Web – though user discretion is advised.

And it’s perfect for not leaving digital footprints in these increasingly privacy-conscious times.

Neil Cumins author picture

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Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!

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