Ive written about TOR a few times but I regularly receive emails from "newbies" asking me to describe what it is in general terms. That's what this article is about. To get things kicked off, let me share an important quote from everyone's favorite whistle blower, Edward Snowden:
In an effort to grab reader/viewer attention, every-time the media mentions Tor, it is usually done in the context of a report about the "evil" & "bad" dark-web. The truth is Tor was created by the US State Department to help global activists communicate freely while in repressive locales.
It takes all of the data leaving your computer (or coming back), creates bundle, encrypts each one multiple times to hard code the path it will take through the TOR network until it reaches its destination. Each node that receives a bundle destined for it, will unencrypt its layer of the bundle which tells it where to send the bundle next. This layered approach is why it is called The Onion Router. Each node only knows where it will send it to next, the receiving node only knows the previous node it came from, which makes eavesdropping or de-anonymizing TOR much more complicated.
Tor Hidden Services are what the media calls the Dark Web. Think of a Tor Hidden Services as a website on the Tor network. When using one of these sites, the request never leaves the TOR network (never touches the normal world wide web) so it is considered even more secure.
Many popular sites, understanding the need and desire for a more private web browsing experience have started creating Tor hidden services for their popular websites (The Intercept, The Guardian, ProPublica, WikiLeaks, Facebook, etc)
Tor does make your browsing experience a little more complicated. First you will notice a drop is performance (i.e. pages load noticeably slower). This slowdown is a side effect of all of the encryption/decryption and the number of hops a packages is forced through to protect your identity. Some sites mark all TOR traffic is potentially malicious and constantly challenge users to "prove their are human" using CATPCHA or a very small group of sites block inbound TOR traffic completely.
The easiest way to try TOR on a computer is to download the TOR browser bundle directly from the TOR project website. It is a customized version of the Firefox browser that is designed not to leak data and is configured to use Tor correctly.
I realize most people care more about ease of use (instead of privacy). I tried Anonabox hoping it would be a good hardware TOR solution but that didn't turn out too well. I am now waiting for the Invizbox and will review it when it finally ships (another delayed project).
I believe privacy is important. If you have questions, feel free to post it in the comments section or send me a note.