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Tor and the internet’s anonymous community

What is Tor? What is onion? And is there more to the internet than meets the eye? Hidden from view and from public access is the anonymity network known as Tor. 

Spend enough time on the internet and you might come across words like onion (no, not the mock news website "the onion"), or Tor. These terms pertain to a special part of the internet, inaccessible without the right tools and untraceable by just about all practical means. When I first encountered tor, it was mentioned in passing on a forum, and I felt much like Neo in the beginning of "The Matrix"; as if I had just stumbled across a big secret that would lead me to an eye opening revelation. It took some time before I actually got around to investigating it, but indeed, I discovered that there is more to the net than meets the eye.

Tor is an abbreviation of "The Onion Router", a system developed for enabling anonymity online. In simple terms, the system reroutes internet data through a big network of volunteering computers, making it difficult for anyone attempting to monitor website traffic or network usage from being able to track where the data is going and where it came from. The name "onion" comes from the system's layered encryption method, which scrambles the data several times as it bounces around the network, with each relay in the network encrypting or de-encrypting another layer. This makes the encryption difficult to break while in transit.

How Tor works


Originally developed in 2002, Tor found support from the US Naval Research Laboratory, as well as from the Electronic frontier foundation in 2004. Since the end of 2006, the US State Department, Broadcasting Board of Governors and National Science Foundation have been providing much of Tor's financial support. In 2010, it received an award as the Free Software Foundation's Project for Social Benefit, as it has allowed upward of 36 million people to access the internet freely: By hiding a few of the entry relays in the Tor network, users can circumvent internet censorship in certain nations and access the web without restrictions, and has helped users access the web in both Iran and Egypt, when these nations began censoring the web.

Tor is accessible via a software suite and browser plugin (alternatively a Tor dedicated browser), which you can download from the Tor project's website https://www.torproject.org/. The software also gives you access to Tor's anonymous network of servers; something which perhaps is the most interesting aspect of Tor.


The Tor logo


Just like for users, Tor enables anonymity for servers, and that means information can be published and accessed without being traceable. Tor servers have the unofficial top level domain suffix .onion (as opposed to .com .org etc) and will not load unless the URL is descrambled via the Tor system. This feature, that it is unreachable through conventional means, makes it a part of the so called "darknet"; a p2p file sharing network.

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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