You probably haven’t heard of The Onion Router, but it represents an increasingly popular way of accessing online content anonymously.
Commonly abbreviated to the Tor browser, its name stems from a method of data transfer inspired by the design of an onion.
Each layer of the journey is distinct to the others, effectively rendering data transfer anonymous by the time it’s been passed through dozens of random global nodes.
Even the best online surveillance tools struggle to pinpoint where information originated, or where it’s going.
And while some people falsely assume Tor is illegal, it was created – and is still part-funded – by the American government for online communications use in unstable nations.
These are Tor’s key merits and drawbacks:
- Anonymity. Individual data packets bounce through multiple nodes, making surveillance impractical. IP addresses are also impossible to track or trace.
- Security. Because it’s open source software, it’s difficult to hide malware in Tor. There’s protection against malicious code, but few criminals bother targeting this niche browser.
- It’s free and universally accessible. Downloading Tor costs nothing, and it works on PCs, Macs and Linux computers. There’s no intrusive advertising or cookies, either.
- It accesses the deep web. Any site with a .onion suffix (most of the deep web) is visible through Tor, but not through other mainstream web browsers.
- It has a privacy-conscious search engine. The absurdly-named DuckDuckGo is to search engines what Tor is to web browsers – the most secure and anonymous choice.
- It aids democracy. Tor was a leading communication tool in the Arab Spring uprising a few years ago, since it allows citizens of repressive regimes to communicate safely.
- Startup times. Tor takes ages to load its homepage – as much as sixty seconds from clicking its icon. That will shock regular users of the streamlined Chrome browser.
- Performance. Because of its layer-like data distribution, Tor runs extremely slowly. You’d struggle to watch streaming media content, even across fibre broadband.
- Data isn’t encrypted. Because it’s effectively anonymous, Tor doesn’t bother encrypting data. A separate VPN is required for encryption, further slowing average transfer times.
- Dated interface. With its grey banners and retro fonts, Tor resembles the defunct 1990s Netscape Navigator browser rather than modern-day rivals like Safari or Firefox.
- Security flaws. Information is delivered anonymously, but the browser software contains vulnerabilities, especially when viewing HTTP sites rather than encrypted HTTPS ones.
It’s hard to imagine anyone using the Tor browser as their main internet portal.
It simply isn’t fast enough for multimedia content, with its ugly interface and slow performance harking back to the bad old days of Midband connections.
However, growing numbers of people around the world are installing Tor as a second web browser, as public awareness of issues like tracking and data reselling increases.
As a backup to Chrome or Firefox, and as a way of avoiding the attention of ISPs and advertisers, the Tor browser has considerable appeal.