If private browsing  doesn’t offer the kind of privacy protection you’re looking for, you’ve got another option. It’s called Tor, and it’s much more than just another web browser — and Data Privacy Day is the perfect time to learn about it!

Image: Tor Project

Tor is software and a global network of servers that exist to provide a layer of privacy and security to people’s online activities. It does that by making those activities more difficult to monitor and trace back to their source.

In their official overview, the Tor Project maintainers say that you can think of what Tor does as “using a twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you — and then periodically erasing your footprints.” Your traffic gets intermingled with the traffic of other Tor users. As the global Tor user base grows, the path gets twister and twister.

Data on the Tor network is encrypted in layers (hence the project’s original name, The Onion Router) and it moves around via a system of relays. Those relays “peel” one layer of encryption to figure out where to send the data to next, so an individual relay never knows the full path. That makes it difficult (but not impossible) to figure out what a specific individual is accessing. Bouncing around random relays has another effect, too: it slows things down. Sites on the Tor network don’t load as quickly as the everyday websites you visit. To people who choose to use Tor, however, it’s worth sacrificing a little speed to gain a whole lot more privacy.

Image: Tor Project

Because it’s a special kind of network, accessing things on Tor requires the use of special apps. Windows, Mac, and Linux users often use the official (and free) Tor Browser, which is based on Firefox. For your iPhone or iPad you can grab Onion Browser from the App Store (also free). Android users can check out orBot (to connect to Tor) and the OrFox browser.

Who Uses Tor?

Yes, shoppers who frequent underground marketplaces on the Dark Web (like The Silk Road and AlphaBay) use Tor, but there are plenty of other reasons people use it. Journalists, for example, use Tor to protect the identities of their sources — and themselves — when they’re following leads online. Citizens who live in countries where internet access is heavily restricted use Tor to bypass those restrictions. Victims of violent crimes might turn to Tor to engage in confidential discussions with a support group.

Military and law enforcement agencies use Tor, too, to keep online activities on the QT. In fact, when Tor was first being developed in the 1990s, a major goal was to protect intelligence communications. And regular folks like you and I use it when we just want to feel like we’re doing everything we can to make sure our online activities aren’t being snooped on by anyone.

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