Until recently, The Onion Router (Tor) Network, one of the most-used anonymity networks, was barely known outside the tech community. But, the network become more prominent as more and more people become aware of the greater need for online security,  and it now boasts millions of users.

So, what is Tor, and who uses it? How does it work, how can one access the network, and what limitations should users know about? This article answers  these questions and more.

What Is Tor?

Tor is an open-source, encrypted private network that allows users to surf the internet anonymously. Before it became publicly available, Tor was developed and used solely by the U.S. Navy to control government communications.

More specifically, Tor was designed to prevent people from tracking a person’s browsing history and  the person’slocation. In fact, the network blocks such attempts by not only the government but also internet service providers (ISPs).

How Does Tor Work?

Tor’s technology directs internet traffic from both websites and internet users through thousands of relays that volunteers have set up and run worldwide. This approach makes pinpointing users’ locations or data sources extremely difficult.

Tor promotes anonymized browsing by letting traffic pass through or onto the system through nodes. These nodes only recognize the nodes that came immediately before and  immediately after them in a process called a relay. Messages are confined to encryption layers, like the layers of an onion.

Who Uses Tor?

While most people associate Tor with illegal dealings, like accessing online drug markets, many people use the network for legitimate purposes. The Tor team notes that military personnel use the network, and the U.S. Navy remains a key user. Other Tor users include journalists and activists in countries with reputations of strict media regulation and internet censorship.

Other groups can also benefit from this network, including IT professionals, business executives, bloggers, and law enforcement agents. Tor’s law enforcement users include police officers, who may want to hide their IP addresses when they are undercover online and investigating dubious websites and services.

Tor can also be used to host sites that are only accessible to other Tor users. Known as “the dark web,” these websites are not indexed by traditional crawlers and contain anything from drugs to books. You just need to know these sites’ particular URLs. But tread carefully!

Lastly, anyone who wants to keep their internet browsing private from ISPs, websites, and advertisers may find Tor useful. People use Tor to hide their IPs, get around their countries’ censorship limitations, and keep their browsing habits a secret.

How Do I Access Tor?

To use the Tor network, a person simply needs to download and launch the Tor browser. Once launched, all of the person’s online activities will go through the network. Plus, the browser comes with additional features that improve anonymity and security by disabling video loading, JavaScript, automatic images, and more.

Currently, the Tor browser is available for macOS, Windows, and Linux. An Android version is also available, although an official version has yet to be released for iOS. Fortunately, most people do not have the need to alter any settings once they install the network. In most cases, it works automatically.

What Are Tor’s Limitations, and How Can I Overcome Them?

Like everything else, the Tor network has some limitations. For starters, because the data on Tor must pass through numerous relays, browsing through the Tor network is slower than using most other browsers. Also, the network blocks some browser plugins, such as QuickTime and Flash. YouTube videos will not play by default either. Luckily, an opt-in trial on YouTube’s HTML5 site allows users to play videos in the meantime.

Another Tor limitation concerns online privacy. Tor only offers network-level anonymity. It does not help users with applications on devices that record their identity or share their identity with ISPs. For instance, when users connect to Gmail, the device saves the user’s identity so that  the user does not have to go through the trouble of logging in again. Tor will not protect users from this kind of data storage.

Put simply, while the Tor network was created to keep a user’s internet activities private from webpages or ISPs, the most privacy-conscious users should take further steps to protect their data by using other privacy tools. VPNs (virtual private networks), for example, are a good additional option for such users.

The Dark Side of Tor

The anonymity that Tor offers makes it a powerful and enticing tool for criminals. The network can conceal users’ identities and host websites through its “hidden services” so that these websites are only accessible by Tor users. Because of this “dark web” side of Tor, people can very commonly find Tor mentioned in stories related to a variety of criminal sites. One example is the underground marketplace for illegal drugs, Silk Road, which was discovered and shut down by the FBI. Silk Road was hidden and accessible only through Tor. Sites like Silk Road are why Tor is often described as “the dark web,” where arms trading, child pornography, and drug trafficking often occur.

Although Tor is likely to appeal to technologically savvy users, public concerns about ISPs, government tracking, and surveillance have increased the network’s popularity with  mainstream internet users. Every internet user faces large-scale surveillance, exploitative browser behaviors, and overall user security issues, which make it clear that better security options are necessary for not only browsers but also other online apps. That is where Tor comes in. Once a user’s web traffic is routed through a stream of proxy servers, the IP address becomes almost entirely unrecognizable and untraceable.

While Tor works to keep users anonymous and secure online, it has some major drawbacks typical of the dark web: It is unreliable, unpredictable, and rather slow. But, if a user can put up with these inconveniences, Tor technology might be worth trying. Just be careful!