There's a Special Browser (Tor) That Leads to a Secret Web
Not too many computer users have heard of the terms "proxy" or "proxy server," or understand what they mean or do. A proxy server is a website/server that acts as a middleman for you to get on the Internet. When you use a proxy server, you're not contacting a website directly—your information runs through a special computer that passes along your request for you.
But more than that, a proxy packages your request with a different "identifier." In other words, your IP address is no longer visible; instead, your request borrows the IP address of the proxy. If you read our article on proxies, you'll get an in-depth explanation.
But in a nutshell, people use proxies because they don't want anyone to have an idea of where they are located. Fact is, someone with limited technical skills can "track" your IP address to a general location, such as the city where you live. (Look at our Trace Email Analyzer.) They cannot pinpoint your address or figure out who you are, but if you gave them your name or city in an email or correspondence, someone could guess or get close to figuring out where you are.
And if you were a lawbreaker online, a law enforcement agency could use legal means to get your name and address from your Internet Service Provider.
So what choices do people who want more anonymity have? That's where Tor comes in.
So what is Tor?
Tor is a free software program that you load onto your computer (like a browser) that hides your IP address every time you send or request data on the Internet. The process is layered with heavy-duty encryption, which means your data is layered with privacy protection.
Then there's the route your data takes as it travels to its destination: Tor will bounce your Internet requests and data through a vast and extensive network of relays (servers) around the world. That data path is never the same, because Tor uses up to 5,000 Tor relays to send your data request. Think of it as a huge network of "hidden" servers that will keep your online identity (meaning your IP address) and your location invisible.
By using Tor, websites will no longer be able to track the physical location of your IP address or what you have been looking at online...and neither will any interested organizations that may want to monitor someone's Internet activity—meaning law enforcement or government security agencies. Tor is like a proxy on steroids.
Tor has extreme value because it can work with your website browser, remote log-in applications and even with instant-messaging software. Tor is registered as a nonprofit company, so they run mainly on donations and reliance on the hope that people will become a relay to their network.
Who uses Tor?
People from all over the world use Tor to search and buy products and communicate with others with restricted Internet access, such as what exists in some foreign countries.
You see, Tor goes beyond simple anonymity—it provides access to a world of information (literally) that the "normal" everyday Web does not. That is a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
Tor is used by a variety of people and organizations. But, it's a fact that many individuals and organizations are up to no good on the Internet, and Tor is their network of choice. They deal in merchandise or information that is illegal and would be blocked by most Internet Service Providers.
So while Tor does provide peace of mind for those who seek the highest level of Internet security and privacy, it also creates a haven for those who want to do online business out of the light of law enforcement.
And that brings up another problem: If you do business on Tor and you run into a problem or dispute—or if you're scammed—there might not be anything you can do about it. A recent article cited that a higher percentage of Tor transactions are fraudulent (when compared to ordinary Internet transactions). Russia has hopes of blocking all incoming Tor traffic for anti-terrorist purposes. Wikipedia, the online public encyclopedia, strives to prevent Tor users from accessing their website.
By using Tor, you can access virtually any website that's out there on the Internet—in any country you want to, and there won't be a block on it. However, many very undesirable websites and organizations also use Tor to conduct less-than-honorable business transactions—just so you know.
Maintaining online privacy in this digital world is very important to a lot of Internet users these days. However, Tor may or may not be the answer for you. You may find that a virtual private network (VPN) is a simpler solution.
You can learn about VPNs and compare your choices with our VPN comparison chart.