In many ways, The Onion Router embodies the internet’s contrary nature. This privacy-oriented search engine is based on a data distribution model devised by the US Navy, even though its principles of anonymity are antithetical to national defence. It’s part-funded by the American Government, despite being widely regarded as a hotbed of criminality and moral turpitude. Its non-profit administrators make the Tor browser freely available, with no benefit to themselves, at a time when everything online seems to have a cost attached. And although Tor could benefit us all, few people know it exists.
Enough to make you cry
The Tor browser’s name was inspired by the way individual data packets are bounced around the internet. Rather than following the quickest route from server to the user device, each data packet goes on a convoluted journey across cyberspace en route to its destination. By the time it has travelled through numerous servers and nodes, it’s effectively impossible to reliably determine what data has been distributed, or who was involved. The complexity of these randomised pathways generates privacy akin to the layers of an onion – peel one away, and another equally inscrutable layer is revealed. And since the data is encrypted, it wouldn’t make much sense even if it was accurately intercepted.
Because of its deliberately inefficient approach to data distribution, Tor is too slow to support high-quality video content. This is another paradox since the web pages it hosts are notorious for containing extreme video clips. Because Dark Web content exists beyond the sight of search engines, this is an ideal place to host material you wouldn’t want the local constabulary to know about.
A browser for our time?
More pertinently, the Tor browser is ideal for consumers uncomfortable with targeted advertising and cookies. Those screen-filling GDPR privacy statements are a constant reminder of how browsing histories are resold around the world, while the recent story claiming that Facebook harvests app data on people who don’t even have Facebook profiles dealt another blow to public confidence. Every time you log into the Tor browser, you have a clean slate. On the downside, that means endlessly re-entering user credentials (at which point activity can be tracked as normal). On the plus side, it makes sailing under the radar possible.
Tor is compatible with Windows, Linux, Android and iOS devices. Downloadable from TorProject.com, the installation process is akin to conventional web browsers. That’s where the similarities end since Tor is startlingly dated compared to modern interfaces like Safari and Chrome. It takes an age to load up, before displaying the DuckDuckGo search engine. This mostly returns World Wide Web results, which conventional search engines also index.
However, unlike Google or Bing, Tor will periodically return .onion URLs of dubious provenance. It pays to tread carefully down in the dark web, where a single misplaced mouse-click might load extreme or distressing content.
It’s what you make of it
Despite its reputation as the pornographer’s friend, installing and using Tor is neither illegal nor immoral. It’s the pro-democracy tool of choice for foreign dissidents and investigative journalists, representing a great way to bolster personal privacy at a time of heightened data awareness. Indeed, there’s much to commend about Tor’s abolition of cookies and wilful abstention from collecting Personally Identifiable Information. Even so, it’s a dated and slow browser which doesn’t always display page content properly (or quickly enough). Think of Tor as a secondary browser rather than a primary one, and it makes far more sense.