What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains]

What Is Onion Routing Intro   What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains]Internet privacy. Anonymity was one of the greatest features of the Internet in its youth (or one of its worst features, depending on who you ask). Leaving aside the sorts of problems that spring forth from anonymous interaction, such as the lack of consequences, Internet privacy and anonymity is important for preventing some serious crimes, like identity theft.

And so when topics related to Internet privacy pop up, you’ll often hear of “private browsing” and “proxy servers” and such. But honestly, the Internet is never truly anonymous. For the most part, your activities can be traced back to you; the only difference is how difficult it is to trace your actions back to you. That’s where “onion routing” comes in.

The Basics Of Onion Routing

One way to understand onion routing is to start with the concept of proxy servers. A proxy server is a server that relays your connection through that server, which basically adds a step in the path of your data packets. If someone traced your IP address, they’d see it as the proxy server’s IP address instead of your home address.

But proxy servers aren’t exactly anonymous. They keep logs of all the traffic that passes through, which means that they can actually point back to you if necessary. For most activities, the proxy server is fine even though it’ll add a bit of latency to your connection. Your anonymity would not be entirely protected, however, if your proxy service was hit with a subpoena for your IP information.

onion routing 1   What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains]

Onion routing is like an advanced form of proxy routing. Instead of routing through a single unprotected server, it uses a network of nodes that constantly encrypt your data packets at every step. Only at the end of this “chain” of onion nodes does your data become decrypted and sent to the final destination. In fact, only this “exit node” has the power to decrypt your message, so no other node can even see what you’re sending.

Due to the multiple layers of encryption, which not-so-coincidentally resemble the layers within an onion, it’s extremely difficult to trace your information back to you as the source when you use onion routing.

A Simple Example

Have you ever heard of Tor? It’s a secure network that uses onion routing to keep all of your activity as encrypted and hidden as possible. Did you know that Tor actually stands for “the onion router”? If that name sounded weird to you before, now you know why it’s called what it is.

onion routing 2   What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains]

Anyway, here’s an example using Tor to help you visualize the process of onion routing a little better. This abstract example that takes you on the journey of a data packet through Tor’s onion routing.

  • Your computer has an onion routing client installed, which in this case is Tor. This client encrypts all data packets sent from your computer (Alice).
  • Your computer sends a data packet to Node A.
  • Node A encrypts your already-encrypted data packet and sends it to Node B.
  • Node B encrypts your already-encrypted data packet and sends it to Node C.
  • This cycle continues until the data packet reaches Node Z, which is the “exit node.”
  • Node Z decrypts all of the layers of encryption on your data packet and finally sends it off to the destination (Bob). Destination thinks your data packet originated from Node Z, not you.
  • When data is sent back to you, the chain is reversed with Node Z becoming the first node and your computer being the exit node.

As you can see, the multiple layers of encryption make it really hard to break into your data packets. It’s like a vault within a vault within a vault – even if you break into one, you still have to break into all of the rest.

How You Can Benefit From Onion Routing

onion routing 3   What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains]

One way to utilize an onion routing network is to set up your website within the network to keep it secret from prying eyes. For example, you can do this on Tor to make it so only Tor network users can view and access your site. Some people might use this opportunity for dark and nefarious purposes, but there are also legitimate reasons for hiding your site on an encrypted network.

If you’re interested, check out Chris’s tutorial on setting up an anonymous Tor site.

But for the most part, Tor is used to maintain your anonymity on the regular Internet that everyone else uses. Don’t want huge corporations like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft to know everything about your browsing habits? Then set up a Tor client and start hiding your activity now. As far as I know, it’s the safest and most effective way to stay hooked up to the Internet while eliminating many privacy issues.

Conclusion

The takeaway? Just get it into your head that the Internet is not the anonymous free-for-all that it once had the reputation of being. Thanks to advancements in technology and logging methods, most actions can be traced back to the proper agent. Not to say that onion routing is foolproof, because all forms of security can be cracked, but the amount of effort needed to crack onion routing is enough to say that it’s an effective anonymizer.

If you’re a big privacy freak, you should look into the Tor network.

Image Credits: Actual Onion Via Shutterstock, People Network Via Shutterstock, Secure Website Via Shutterstock

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

10 Comments -

0 votes

Chris Marcoe

There are other ways to keep from being tracked by GoogleAnalytics and such site. you can use Ghostery or DoNotTrackMe on Firefox or Ice Dragon. However, to see anything on the “Deep Web” you’ve gotta go with TOR.

One question, though. If you are using TOR to cruise something in the Deep Web, and, at the same time, you are using Ice Dragon or FireFox to cruise something on the surface, will FireFox running adversely affect the TOR surfing? Will it cause the TOR browsing not as secure?

0 votes

Joel Lee

I’m not a TOR expert so take my reply with a grain of salt, but I’m inclined to say that it shouldn’t affect your TOR browsing. You will still be “exposed” to the public Internet with your Firefox activities, but your TOR activity should remain hidden.

0 votes

Scott M

I would like to use Tor all of the time but a few of my torrent sites I use can’t handleor won’t allow it.

0 votes

Maxi3w

Hi Joel. [sadly] I’ve just set up a domain with a web site builder company using my normal browser and I’ve just heard about and installed the Tor Browser through your article today. My site just has its domain and site builder package (which I haven’t even begun yet) and the company already has all my details…. Is it too late to start using Tor for my site when I write posts? (talking privacy here). Should I add my sites domain and the web builder company to Tor’s script whitelist so I can access it?

Any advice I appreciate in advance.

0 votes

Joel Lee

You may find stronger answers to your questions by asking over in MUO Answers. Like I mentioned to Chris, I’m not a TOR expert and I don’t want to give you wrong advice that could impact your website + domain. Sorry!

0 votes

Maxi3w

Thank You, I’ll put the Q in the pool and see what comes up – there may already be an answer for both Chris and me. Still happy that you wrote this article as I’d never have known about TOR – it sounds awesome!! And I am more knowledgeable too :) It led me on to installing Comodo Dragon Browser (based on Chromium) which is great too. I think many of us are getting more conscious about our online privacy and will do a lot to protect it. Thanks :)

5 votes

Alan Wade

Well, my plantation theory has just gone out the window!
Nice article Joel!

0 votes

Humza Aamir

Expertly written!

5 votes

Lisa Santika Onggrid

You have to remember that TOR exit node is the most vulnerable part of the system, and government might act as exit node to snoop data transaction. Several researches and experiments had shown that whoever operating the exit nodes are able to mine whatever data is passing by. That means if you’re a TOR user, you better hope your exit node is operated by legitimate ‘good guys’.

0 votes

Joel Lee

Right, a very good point. TOR is definitely MORE secure than the traditional Internet protocol, but it definitely has its own set of (not so egregious) flaws. I think there are ways to circumvent, or at least lessen, the impact of exit node vulnerability, but that’s beyond my expertise!