Tor helps you to be Anonymous on the Internet up to a certain degree, but how TOR does that ? Inner workings of TOR network a lot more complex than a basic encryption.


In this article, we will tell you about working with TOR network. If you followed our previous articles, you have a basic idea about TOR and a working idea of its working. In this section, we describe working of TOR on your system level.

Inner working of The TOR Network to make you anonymous


If you want to know what is TOR, its origin, who funded it? Who runs it now? You need to see this before you go further.

Disclaimer: The article series on Anonymity is for educational purposes only, what you do with this information is solely your responsibility.

Working of TOR


You have seen your regular HTML page loading on your browser, it ends with .html, .htm, .php, .aspx etc. The extension of HTML tells the browser what technology the requested page is using so the container can handle it. The Tor uses .Onion files for browsing.
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The Onion files

The TOR software uses .onion files for communication over the TOR network. Word Onion is metaphorically used for .onion files because they encrypt the data in layers. Just like an Onion has layers overlayer, the .onion file is an encrypted file over another .onion file. This gives additional security to data while it travels through one computer to another.

TOR Network Communication using Relays

Now, that we know about TOR’s history and what kind of files does TOR throws to the TOR network. Let’s go ahead and talk about how TOR makes network communication. Tor uses something called “the relays”. If onion file is the package that travels from source to destination than these relays are the intermediate stations that make it possible for the TOR network to pass on these messages. The relays are basically intermediate computers that let your message pass through to another Relay until it reaches the main guy, the destination.


See what happens when A sends data to Z through the internet. With a basic internet connection, everyone is able to see your details like username, password, website etc.
Fig 1 Your data on Internet without HTTPS
Credit EFF*


A sends data to Z through the internet over Https and your Username and Passwords are protected by SSL. Only the destination site and your IP are revealed.
Fig 2 Your data on Internet with HTTPS
Credit EFF*


A sends data to Z using TOR and HTTPS, You can see in the infographic below that only your location is revealed as TOR. Now from A to Z, no one will be able to identify you except for the destination, as a destination will get unencrypted data.
Fig 3 Your data on Internet with HTTPS over TOR
Credit EFF*


There are about 6000 active TOR relays, and increasing ever since then. The TOR network is completely run by a network of volunteers, who are willing to contribute their bandwidth. If you are willing to do the same you can do so by following the tor project’s guidelines. You would require a Linux, minimum 2MBPS dl/ul bandwidth to participate.

Working of Relays

In an ideal TOR connection, there are minimum 3 relays, viz. Guard Relay, Middle Relay, and Exit Relay.
Guard Relay – The first contact of all data packets occur at Guard Relay. This Relay is responsible for providing a robust, ever standing network. This is the entry point of the Tor Network and due to this reason, it has high bandwidth, greater security to hacking and spying. Not any relay get to be a guard relay, the TOR network has to verify its claim to become a Guard Relay only after the relay has spent a considerable time with good track record in the Network.
Middle Relay – Middle relays are middle nodes that transport traffic from the guard relay to the exit relay. This protects the identity of the guard and exit relay from each other. So if you decided to become a relay you are either an exit relay or a middle relay. Also, you will not know the identity of another relay. Both of these relays work anonymously.
Exit Relay – These relays are the exit point of The TOR network. These exit points generally keep changing. So a packet being sent out from one exit node will not necessarily be the one sending out a consequent packet from the same network. These are the edge of the Tor network and relay traffic to the final destination intended by the client. Exit relays are generally hosted on powerful servers as well, like Amazon EC2, Rackspace, and Digital Ocean etc.
tor relay-min
Fig 4 Full Circuit of the TOR Network


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Working of Onion

As described earlier in this article, the Onion is used for communicating Data. Each layer is encrypted and every next layer treats the previous one as data. This is done in order to enhance security. The principle of TOR is simple, Trust No One, Not even Relays.
What if any relay becomes compromised and decided to look into your network traffic? That is why every layer contains encryption. Only public information to concerning Relay is decryptable by that Relay only.
An onion is actually a “Data Structure”, it is formed by Wrapping up “data” with layers of encryption, and each layer only can be decrypted partly by next layer, just to know the next relay.
Fig 5 Onion Conceptual Layers of Encryption
Credit Wikimedia
The Entry relay only knows middle relay, the middle relay does not know the source, destination, of the data. The exit node does not know the source but knows the final destination of the Data. The client or the TOR bundle encrypts the original data in such that only the exit relay can decrypt it.
The encrypted data from the source is then pushed into the TOR network, now client doesn’t know which TOR relay is getting his data,  The Entry Relay then encrypts the source data again in such a way that only the middle relay can decrypt it. This encrypted data is encrypted once more for the guard relay to decrypt it. Guard relay gets the data, decrypts it and sends it off to the destination. This is at this point, your data is completely unencrypted. This logical path of the relays is called “the circuit” or “the chain”.
The decryption and encryption are done by relays sharing a session key. The Two relays (X and Y) in communication, share a “session key”, this session key is used by X to encrypt data, and by Y to decrypt the same data. Only information Y gets is what data to pass on to next Relay. Y encrypts using a new session key shared with next relay.

When the chain is complete, the originator can send data over the Internet anonymously. When the final recipient of the data sends data back, the intermediary nodes maintain the same link back to the originator, with data again layered, but in reverse such that the final node this time removes the first layer of encryption and the first node removes the last layer of encryption before sending the data, for example, a web page, to the originator.

Failure Points of the TOR network

“A Chain is as strong as it’s the weakest link”, A Tor network’s weakest link is the receiver and the sender. As you can see in the Full circuit of the TOR network, the sender and receiver are secured by TOR network only. So any weakness at their end is the Single point of failure for the TOR network. Even though the browser of the sender is secured, his habits or other application on his computer might give up his identity. As you can see in diagram “Fig 3” above, by EFF, that you might be secure during the TOR communication but the Endpoints are not very secure. You might be using TOR Bundle but there are applications on your system which are acting like a beacon to their respective Advertising networks. Another point of failure is the part of “the exit relay” and “the receiver” including the receiver itself. We will cover these problems in later issues of this series on Anonymity. It is almost impossible to become invisible on the Internet.


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