Tor Definition

What Is Tor?

Tor—short for the Onion Routing project—is an open-source privacy network that enables anonymous web browsing. The worldwide Tor computer network uses secure, encrypted protocols to ensure that users' online privacy is protected. Tor users' digital data and communications are shielded using a layered approach that resembles the nested layers of an onion.

The Tor technology was initially developed and solely used by the U.S. Navy to protect sensitive government communications. The network was later made available to the public as an open-source platform, meaning that Tor's source code is accessible to everyone. Tor is upgraded and enhanced by volunteer developers in the Tor network.

Key Takeaways

  • The Tor network is a secure, encrypted protocol that can ensure privacy for data and communications on the web.
  • Short for the Onion Routing project, the system uses a series of layered nodes to hide IP addresses, online data, and browsing history.
  • Originally developed by the U.S. government, critics consider Tor to be dangerous in the hands of some people, who may use the Tor network for illegal or unethical purposes.

How to Use Tor

To access the privacy and security features of Tor, you need to install the Tor browser. For that, you need an Internet connection and a compatible operating system.

You can download Tor at the Tor website.

Follow the instructions to install the browser just like you would any other application on your device. You can then watch tutorials within Tor that explain how to navigate the browser.

Tor lets users customize their privacy settings, although the standard settings are considered to be sufficiently private for average users. Customizing Tor to be the most secure can affect your ability to use certain websites.

How Tor Works

Though knowing how the Tor network works is not necessary to use its browser, you may be curious about how Tor operates.

Tor uses an onion-style routing technique for transmitting data. When you use the Tor browser to digitally communicate or access a website, the Tor network does not directly connect your computer to that website. Instead, the traffic from your browser is intercepted by Tor and bounced to a random number of other Tor users’ computers before passing the request to its final website destination.

Many dark web enterprises and activities are only accessible via Tor.

This same process is reversed to enable the destination website to communicate with you, the Tor user. The encryption process that the Tor software uses obscures users' identities, requests, communications, and transactions while still enabling them to use the Internet as they normally would.

Who Uses Tor and Why

Though Tor is best known for its illicit uses, many Internet users can have different, valid reasons for accessing the Internet via Tor.

Let's take a closer look at who uses Tor and why:

  • Government agencies: Tor can protect and securely share sensitive government information.
  • For-profit enterprises: Companies that use Tor can benefit from increased data privacy and security.
  • Illicit organizations: Criminals sometimes use Tor to shield their online activity.
  • Private individuals: Anyone wishing for more online privacy and better cybersecurity can benefit from the Tor browser. Journalists, activists, and people facing censorship may choose to interact online via Tor.

In 2016, the FBI successfully investigated and identified owners and users of a Tor-hosted website called Playpen, which was considered the largest child pornography website on the Internet.

Sites like Silk Road, a Tor-hosted underground marketplace known for facilitating illegal drug sales, garner the most headlines for Tor. But many Tor users have legitimate reasons for wanting to privately browse the web, especially in an era when cybercrime is on the rise.

Is Tor Legal?

Tor is legal to use. Tor is not designed nor intended for Tor users or Tor network operators to break the law.

Does the Tor browser Hide Your IP address?

The Tor network functions to obscure your IP address, but several scenarios can cause your activity in the Tor browser to be less than completely anonymous. Using a web browser configured to use Tor as a proxy, a torrent file-sharing application, or some browser plug-ins can all result in your online identity being revealed.

Is Tor Free?

Yes, the Tor browser is free to download and use. Tor supports web browser versions for Windows, Android, and Apple devices.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. The Tor Project. "History." Accessed Feb. 13, 2022.

  2. The Tor Project. "Security Settings." Accessed Feb. 13, 2022.

  3. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "‘Playpen’ Creator Sentenced to 30 Years." Accessed Feb. 13, 2022.

  4. The Tor Project. "The Legal FAQ for Tor Relay Operators." Accessed Feb. 14, 2022.

  5. The Tor Project. "Am I Totally Anonymous If I Use Tor?." Accessed Feb. 13, 2022.

  6. The Tor Project. "Defend Yourself." Accessed Feb. 13, 2022.

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