Tor and Tails: two essential tools of the dark web

When it comes to keeping your identity and Internet activities private, there are different levels of effort you can put in. For most people, most of the time it is enough to observe good basic internet security. This usually means that you are using encryption correctly and avoiding the sordid parts of the internet.

However, there are places on the Internet that are quite risky to visit. Places that can get your attention from the wrong kind of people on both sides of the law. The Dark Web, in particular, is a section of the Internet that you should never brave without having the right kind of tools to hide your activity.

To be clear, simply accessing the Dark Web is by no means illegal! However, many of the places you can visit on the Dark Web are on the wrong side of the law or in a gray area. On top of that, just accessing the Dark Web can get you noticed by the authorities. Even if you haven’t done anything wrong.

That’s why there are two privacy tools that are pretty much essential for anyone who wants to access the Dark Web. The first one we’re going to talk about is called Tor and that’s what it is.

Why Tor is essential to the Dark Web

We’ve written a lot about the Tor Project on Technadu in the past, simply because it’s such a fundamentally important part of internet anonymity and privacy. However, it is almost entirely essential for accessing the Dark Web. Tor’s hidden services host most of the dark websites. Before we go ahead, let’s talk about what Tor actually is. The Tor puzzle has two main parts: the Tor browser and the Tor network.

Tor is a browser

Tor 8 browser

Tor Browser is software that you download like any other. Basically, it’s Mozilla’s Firefox browser. However, it has been changed so that all the privacy and security weaknesses present in most browsers are sealed.

Tor browser is portable software. This means that it is stand-alone and does not need to be installed to function. You don’t even have to copy it to the computer you are going to be using. Just run it from a USB key that you can then remove at the end of your session.

Every installation of Tor is and should remain the same. Thanks to the “browser fingerprint”, having a personalized browser makes it easier to link a specific browser to you and your activities.

The way the Tor browser is configured, it will only route internet traffic through the Tor network (which we’ll see next) with exactly the right network settings. Using the Tor browser isn’t the only way to access the Tor network, but it’s the only way to absolutely know that everything is set up correctly.

The browser is also configured to do things like automatically delete information from your sessions the moment you close them. Nothing is perfect when it comes to privacy, but Tor is as tight as it gets. It includes technologies such as NoScript and HTTPS-Everywhere by default. These are the kinds of steps more people should take on their own, but with Tor Browser everything is taken care of.

You can use Tor browser to access both regular websites and .onion sites which are favored by most dark websites. How? ‘Or’ What? This is where the Tor network comes in.

Tor is a network

The Tor browser may be the face of Tor these days, but the real power of Tor lies in the Tor network. You see, “Tor” is actually an acronym for “the onion router”. Onion routing refers to a special method of moving data packets across the Internet in such a way that your anonymity is strongly protected.

The network itself is made up of volunteers who offer their computers as nodes on an encrypted peer-to-peer network. When a packet of data leaves your computer for a server, it takes a random path through this voluntary network. Each data packet is wrapped in multiple layers of encryption. Like an onion, got it? At each stage of the path, a layer is removed until the destination server receives the packet without additional encryption. This way, no node in the chain knows both the origin and the destination of the packet.

The network was designed by the US military. Created to allow agents in distant lands to communicate without being caught. Today, it is one of the last bastions of true anonymity on the Internet. As such, it has also become the backbone of the Dark Web and you cannot do without it if you want to access onion sites with proper security in place.

Tails is the true home of Tor

What if someone looked at your computer and found out that you were using the Tor network? They can now find out what you did, but they might find traces on your computer that you used Tor. Which may be enough to make them dig deeper. There is also another problem. Someone could identify you from the Dark Web by accessing your computer or determining the unique aspects of the computer you are using to access the Dark Web through Tor.

These are just two reasons why it’s not the best idea to use your everyday computer to access the Dark Web. One possible solution is to use a “live OS”. It is an operating system that boots from a DVD or flash drive and allows you to do things with the computer without touching its hard drive. When you shut down the computer, this session should not leave any traces on the computer.

However, most live operating systems are not designed specifically for privacy. The exception is Tails, a special tool that anyone looking to access the Dark Web should be familiar with.

Tails is an acronym
Logo Tails

Just like Tor, “Tails” is short for something. Specifically, it stands for The Amnesiac Incognito Live System ”.

This immediately tells us a lot about what Tails is. It’s obviously a live operating system, which means you boot it from a flash drive, bypassing your permanent operating system.

“Amnesiac” obviously means that he does not remember anything about you. This is a very important feature, because operating systems, in general, keep all kinds of records about your activities. Modern operating systems like Windows 10 can even send these recordings back to the people who wrote the software! Tails forgets everything you did by design.

It is incognito because it does not let anything escape about your own identity either. The operating system only works through the Tor network.

Tails also does not use the hard drive of the host computer. Tails caches everything in RAM. When the computer shuts down, there is no evidence Tails was ever there.

It also comes with advanced file encryption technology. Thus, all the data that you save, generate, use or delete via Tails will never be in the hands of those who do not have your password.

Tails is Linux

Tails is based on Debian Linux, which means it is free and open source software. This is not good news because you don’t have to pay anything. This is good news because open source software is easy to audit for security. If a private company had created Tails, there is always a chance that a backdoor would be built in. There is a whole community of people scouring the code of software like this, both for vulnerabilities and for malicious code.

Essential but insufficient

While Tor and Tails are essential tools for anyone wanting to visit and use the Dark Web, they are not sufficient on their own. Combined, these tools provide solid technical security for any user, but there is more to protection on the Dark Web than just that.

You also need to adopt good habits. Know what to watch out for when wandering the dark corners of the web. It is also important that you are wary of who you talk to on the Dark Web, what kind of information you provide, and what exactly you are trying to do. There is no such thing as a foolproof system and if your idea is to hide illegal activity, you could end up in real trouble!

What if you just wanted to practice free speech and learn things the surface web might consider taboo? Then Tor, Tails, and your own common sense will go a long way in keeping you safe. That being said, there is an excellent Tails and Tor warning page that describes the limitations and vulnerabilities of these tools. Make sure you know them before you head out to the Dark Web.

What tools do you use to access the dark web? What were Tor and Tails like? Finally, we would like to ask you to share this article online. And don’t forget that you can follow TechNadu on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you!

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About Haydee J. Kennedy

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