Tor is getting another visibility boost for people who may not otherwise come into contact with it. The reason: an attempt to navigate increasing amounts of censorship.

What is Tor?

The Tor network is something designed to keep communications anonymous. A variety of tools exist to make use of it, including messaging, web browsers, and other clients. Most people new to this realm would likely have their first experience via the standalone Tor browser. This works like any other browser download, with a lot of the same functionality. The big difference is that when you load it up, it connects to the Tor network. From the Tor browser manual:

Tor is a network of virtual tunnels that allows you to improve your privacy and security on the Internet. Tor works by sending your traffic through three random servers (also known as relays) in the Tor network. The last relay in the circuit (the “exit relay”) then sends the traffic out onto the public Internet.

Additional security tools and precautions abound in the browser to reduce the risk of fingerprinting, unwanted tracking, and more. The default search engine in DuckDuckGo. All data vanishes when the browser is closed (think Incognito mode), and three levels of security increasingly strip out page aspects such as JavaScript and media which could present problems.

That’s not all. Many sites have a .onion version available to make it even harder to perform surveillance on the user. When an onion version of a page you’re on exists, an “Onion available” notification is displayed next to the URL bar. That is highly relevant in this instance.

Peeling the onion

Onion pages are considered to have more advantages than regular sites where anonymity and privacy are concerned. Going back to the Tor manual:

  • Onion services’ location and IP address are hidden, making it difficult for adversaries to censor them or identify their operators.
  • All traffic between Tor users and onion services is end-to-end encrypted, so you do not need to worry about connecting over HTTPS.
  • The address of an onion service is automatically generated, so the operators do not need to purchase a domain name; the .onion URL also helps Tor ensure that it is connecting to the right location and that the connection is not being tampered with.

The second bullet is particularly useful for those perhaps increasingly rare occasions of dealing with a non HTTPs site. They do still exist! The third bullet is handy for service operators, and the first is good for everybody involved.

Why is the potentially obscure world of onion addresses (to regular web users at least) getting an airing in the media?

Social media makes the leap (again)

Twitter has launched an onion version of its service, available immediately. It now joins Facebook, who went live with its own onion service in 2014. While some may flag this as a response to events in Ukraine, it seems this has been in the works for some time. Indeed, one of the people behind it says they’ve been toying with the idea for several years.

Elsewhere, major news services have had onion pages for a few years now:

They’re also actively promoting relevant language specific pages:

So, then, it really depends what you’re looking for via Tor. If your personal circumstances currently require access to blocked services to communicate with friends and family, or you simply need a variety of news sources in a hurry, then you may well want to consider downloading the Tor browser, because there’s a good chance what you need is already available.

Just keep in mind that, as with all things, risks do exist, and factor in additional security precautions as appropriate. Navigating directly to the Onion pages from official links likely presents minimal risk, but forewarned is most definitely forearmed.