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Browsing system Tor, short for “The Onion Router”, enables journalists to anonymise their communications and may help access websites that are blocked on the local Internet. This article explains how Tor works and the benefits for journalists to use Tor in conjunction with a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

Governments, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), or other third parties may seek to track a journalist’s online activity, either for data collection to sell to advertisers, or surveillance. Journalists should protect their data online by using secure browsers such as the browsing system “The Onion Router”, better known under its acronym “Tor”.

An encrypted internet network. Tor is an internet browsing system that enables journalists to anonymise their communications with sources and access online resources from locations where their internet activity may be tracked or blocked. The Tor browser, to access the Tor network, is a modified version of Firefox and is available for both desktop and mobile devices. Tor encrypts its users’ data when they send an email or access a website by scattering the information all over the Tor network before it returns to the “regular” Internet. This makes the connection between the sender and the recipient difficult to track. 

The best tool for safeguarding anonymity. Tor only protects the information leaving its network but offers stronger anonymity, as it uses a decentralised process and is not registered to any company or country. On the contrary, VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are connected to legally-registered companies, meaning that their security is subject to the laws of the country they are based in, and that data flows through a central server that can be targeted by third parties.

The perks of using Tor:

  • Secure communication. Journalists can communicate with colleagues and sources with greater anonymity due to automatic data encryption.
  • Anonymous browsing. Websites accessed through Tor are not immediately visible to ISPs and other third parties.
  • Open uncensored web. The Tor network hosts sites that are unreachable through Google searches or direct web addresses, and may be illegal under certain regimes. This mass of sites is collectively known as the “dark web”.

Limitations to keep in mind:

  • Do not assume Tor is entirely safe. As Tor is entirely decentralised, law enforcement agencies or any third party can create and run their own Tor routers to monitor what data passes through them. You can read How-To Geek guidelines on how to safely use Tor.
  • Use additional end-to-end encryption tools. Tor is not fully encrypted, meaning data can still be intercepted and read. Therefore, journalists should use dedicated encryption tools and always turn on a VPN when using Tor.
  • Check ISPs terms and conditions. Due to Tor’s association with the “dark web” and potential illegal activity on its network, many ISPs ban the use of Tor in their terms and conditions. Consequently, they may limit the users’ internet speed or entirely cut them off completely for accessing it.