Tor, The Onion Router, is a Free Software tool that makes internet use anonymous by effectively hiding your IP address. After installing the software, your computer becomes a node on the TOR network, sending encrypted packets of data from node to node until they arrive at their final destination. The data travels through so many nodes in the network that it obscures the path to the original IP address. If you send an email, your data will be encrypted from your computer to the last computer prior to its destination. This final computer on the network is the IP address that will be reported in any network analysis, and this IP addresses is any IP in the network other than yours.
Tor was originally designed for the U.S. Navy to protecting government communications. It resists traffic analysis, eavesdropping, and any nosy activity, from both in and outside the onion network. It is a very convenient software, widely available and easy enough to use.
Technically, Tor hides you among the other users on the network. While the level of practical commitment is low—it just requires a connection and downloading some code—the personal investment is high: by using Tor, you are part of a community of computer users that help each other hide from state and corporate control mechanisms. Strangers help you defend your privacy, avoid censorship and grant you a degree of personal freedom by fooling surveillance mechanisms with a mirrors trick. Hiding in this way is illegal in some countries. And, what is more interesting, you don't know who these strangers are.
The reason why Tor is so important is not because of what it does, it is because of what it represents. In the Tor forest, everybody covers for everybody, but nobody knows who the others are. They are not friends, and they are not family. It is that anonymous. Anyone can use Tor to do things other people wouldn't approve, like downloading porn or attacking other people's computers. Or things that governments would not approve of, like posting dissident information, the most notorious case being a very active chap called Wikileaks.
It doesn't have to be heroic; maybe you just want to browse the most milquetoast sites on the Internet with complete privacy. By using Tor, you join a bunch of strangers in declaring everybody has the right to complete privacy and collaborate anonymously to grant yourself and others that constitutional right.
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