What Is Onion Routing and How You Can Get Your Privacy Back

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When the word “privacy” comes to mind, you’re probably thinking about browsing the Internet through a proxy or VPN. Anyone who has tried the two knows that free proxies (and even some paid access ones) work at a snail’s pace and VPNs, although faster, tend to be centralized around one entity. Proxies and many VPNs also often keep logs of traffic that goes through them. 

Between these two options, there’s one unsung hero that presents most of the advantages of a VPN without the molasses speed of old-timey proxies: Onion routing, also known as OR. We take a look at what onion routing is, how it can benefit you, and even have a look at a special tool that can connect you to the TOR network with just a few clicks.

What Is OR?

Onion routing, as the name implies, is a method of anonymous communication across the Internet that involves a chain of “nodes” that relay your messages, eventually arriving at an endpoint. When you connect to a node, everything you send gets encrypted at your computer and decrypts at the “exit node.”

The exit node is the final node your message will reach before it’s sent directly to its destination. This sets onion routing apart from a regular proxy, since it’s very difficult to trace messages with so many different computers involved. Added to this, no individual node can decrypt your message except the exit node.

Note: Tor (The Onion Router) is a famous software implementation of OR. Tor Browser isn’t OR but uses its protocol. When you hear someone talking about “using Tor,” they’re often referring to the use of Tor Browser as opposed to using onion routing in other applications.

A Simple OR Scenario

Let’s examine a data transfer from your computer to the exit node. It should look something like this:

  • Your computer encrypts the message through the OR client.
  • Your computer sends the encrypted message to a node. Let’s call it N1.
  • N1 is connected to N2. N1 adds its own layer of encryption and sends the message to N2.
  • N2 is connected to N3. It adds another layer of encryption and sends the message. This goes on until the message reaches the exit node (EN).
  • EN decrypts the message and passes it on to the destination. The destination thinks that the message originated from EN, not from any of the other nodes, and not from your computer.
  • The destination sends a reply to EN. EN encrypts the message and passes it along to the chain of nodes, eventually arriving at your computer for decryption.
  • Your computer decrypts the message and displays it. Communication is always from the destination to EN, but no one knows you exist except N1.

In the return path, each layer of encryption is “peeled off”  by every successive node.

The added advantage that this provides over VPNs and remote proxies is that you’re essentially engaging in a “conversation” with the server using multiple layers of separation as opposed to one. While some big-name VPNs like NordVPN adopt a similar concept through features like “double VPN” or “multi-hop,” these services are managed by for-profit entities that need to charge you a subscription so that they can maintain their machines that provide the routes.

OR gives you all of this for free because the people “running the service” are often private individuals “lending” their machines to the network, much like how Bittorrent thrives because of individuals using their machines to “seed” data to others wishing to download it.

Our Test of OR vs. Free SOCKS5 Proxies

While people may speculate that OR is slower due to the longer paths that packets have to take, it seems that OR is significantly faster than most freely available SOCKS5 proxies. The majority of proxies operate at less than 1 megabit per second. Compare that to the 5 to 6 megabits per second on average that OR usually delivers from our own personal tests of the network.

The fastest paths are mostly from ORs within the same country, but that’s not necessarily a rule. For example, using an endpoint from the US in a computer in Romania, I was able to download at 2 megabits per second. You’ll notice a jump in speed and reliability when using OR nodes. However, I can’t guarantee its reliability against a commercial proxy. We’re only comparing OR to free proxies that usually host many connections simultaneously.

Proper Uses for OR

Almost anything you normally do on the “clearnet” – a term used by users of the dark web to describe sites one can normally visit outside of the onion network – you can also do with OR. Just don’t expect to stream Netflix or YouTube with much consistency. When the network approaches peak traffic, you can expect things to slow down significantly.

OR vs. VPNs

The OR network and the services that VPNs provide are similar in many ways. They both attempt to anonymize the user and both attempt to segregate the Web for the user in one way or another (for example, companies using private VPN servers to keep data transfers between employees in remote locations within a particular enclave).

There are, however, some areas where VPNs are superior and OR simply can’t catch up. Among these, the biggest is the ability to have reliable service. Paid VPN services have a keen interest in keeping their customers sufficiently satisfied to stay within their server bubbles. Since OR relies on people volunteering their bandwidth, you’ll often experience bandwidth bottlenecks browsing the Web using this protocol that you otherwise wouldn’t encounter using a VPN.

OR Clients

In Windows, perhaps the most powerful client you can use is AdvOR (also called “AdvTOR”).

Its name is short for Advanced Onion Router. This piece of software not only allows you to connect to the OR network impeccably with a swift click of the mouse, but it also works very well out of the box, eliminating the need for you to configure very much.

You can open the program and configure “127.0.0.1:9050” as the proxy on any application you want to use. Added to this, AdvOR has the ability to hook onto applications that don’t give you the possibility of configuring a proxy. Highly stable and very robust, AdvOR has everything you need to browse the Internet privately without having to expose yourself.

For Linux, there are many pieces of software. You can read our guide here about installing and using TOR in Linux.

Let’s Hear from You!

If you have an awesome OR client that you think others here could really benefit from, please leave a comment below. Also, don’t hesitate to comment if you have questions about AdvOR. We’ll be discussing it more in later articles.

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Miguel Leiva-Gomez Miguel Leiva-Gomez

Miguel has been a business growth and technology expert for more than a decade and has written software for even longer. From his little castle in Romania, he presents cold and analytical perspectives to things that affect the tech world.

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