Tor is a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. It also enables software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features. Tor provides the foundation for a range of applications that allow organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy.

Tor helps to reduce the risks of both simple and sophisticated traffic analysis by distributing your transactions over several places on the Internet, so no single point can link you to your destination. The idea is similar to using a twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you — and then periodically erasing your footprints. Instead of taking a direct route from source to destination, data packets on the Tor network take a random pathway through several relays that cover your tracks so no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it's going.

To create a private network pathway with Tor, the user's software or client incrementally builds a circuit of encrypted connections through relays on the network. The circuit is extended one hop at a time, and each relay along the way knows only which relay gave it data and which relay it is giving data to. No individual relay ever knows the complete path that a data packet has taken. The client negotiates a separate set of encryption keys for each hop along the circuit to ensure that each hop can't trace these connections as they pass through.

Once a circuit has been established, many kinds of data can be exchanged and several different sorts of software applications can be deployed over the Tor network. Because each relay sees no more than one hop in the circuit, neither an eavesdropper nor a compromised relay can use traffic analysis to link the connection's source and destination. Tor only works for TCP streams and can be used by any application with SOCKS support.

For efficiency, the Tor software uses the same circuit for connections that happen within the same ten minutes or so. Later requests are given a new circuit, to keep people from linking your earlier actions to the new ones.

Hidden services

Tor also makes it possible for users to hide their locations while offering various kinds of services, such as web publishing or an instant messaging server. Using Tor "rendezvous points," other Tor users can connect to these hidden services, each without knowing the other's network identity. This hidden service functionality could allow Tor users to set up a website where people publish material without worrying about censorship. Nobody would be able to determine who was offering the site, and nobody who offered the site would know who was posting to it. Learn more about configuring hidden services and how the hidden service protocol works.