Our right to privacy and open information online is more at risk than ever before. Governments use spyware to target human rights defenders and block entire websites that talk about human rights. In fact, Amnesty’s websites are completely blocked to people living in countries like Russia, Iran and China, just because we dare to confront human rights violations in those countries.
Luckily there are people out there looking for ways to combat this threat. This includes the Tor Project, a non-profit organization that builds technology that helps you stay safe online.
What is Tor?
Tor is an acronym for ‘The Onion Router’ and has software that makes it incredibly difficult to track what you do online. It is like having a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or private browser but even more secure.
When you use Tor Browser or Tor-specific onion services, information about your movements online is scrambled across a global network of relays run by volunteers with The Tor Project. This means that there are multiple layers of encryption protecting your privacy, just like there are many layers in an onion.
What makes Tor different to browsing online normally?
Before we can explain what sets Tor Browser apart from other browsers, we should first cover the basics of how normal browsers work.
Normal browsers like Chrome, or Safari or Firefox search for websites using DNS or the Domain Name System. DNS uses a distributed network of systems to locate the web server that houses the website you’re looking for. Your device will then make a direct connection to that web server. That web server and internet routers that you used to reach that server have your IP address, since that is how they knew where to send the content.
It’s similar to the way we send physical letters through the post. Your letter goes through a series of post offices before it finally reaches its destination. And just like you have a return address on a letter, your IP address is included in the information being passed around.
This is where privacy becomes an issue. You leave traces of your IP address across the internet when you’re browsing, which makes it possible to track someone’s online activity without them knowing.
Using a Tor browser hides your IP address by putting it through multiple levels of encryption and Tor network relay points before sending any information to the website you are visiting, thus making browsing safer and more private.
What is an onion domain?
The most secure and private connection you can make using Tor is with websites that are published on an .onion domain. These websites are created inside the Tor network and are end-to-end encrypted, meaning that there is no information being passed through the public internet after leaving the Tor network.
In 2023, we started publishing our research and campaigns on an .onion domain, enabling our supporters to better access human rights information without compromising their privacy.
While the Tor browser is a great way to avoid sharing your IP address while online, there are still risks to using the normal infrastructure of the Internet. Even though your IP address is hidden, the network likely knows that you’re using Tor, which could present its own challenges. To combat this Tor also provides Bridges that make it more difficult for anyone watching your internet traffic to determine that you are using Tor.
How can I use Tor?
You can use Tor by downloading the Tor Browser, which works the same way other browsers do except it’s connected to the Tor network.
How does Tor help promote human rights?
We all have a right to privacy. That right is well documented in laws around the world, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And yet we still hear reports of states using unlawful and pervasive surveillance systems to track internet browsing and the use of messaging applications.
Governments also use highly-invasive spyware and targeted surveillance systems to spy on people who speak against them. These risks don’t only affect the most vocal human rights defenders. In 2021, The Pegasus Project unveiled the truth that spyware from surveillance company NSO Group was used to target as many as 50,000 phones on behalf of their government clients.
We have joined global calls for an end to this kind of invasive and systematic surveillance but know that these programmes continue to remain a serious threat. That’s why initiatives like Tor are so crucial to combatting today’s surveillance harms. Tor provides an alternate route to the web that allows people to benefit from open and free information without being forced to compromise their privacy.