Tor has released the beta version of its new Tor Messenger anonymous instant messaging tool in the hope that it will improve the security and anonymity of online messaging.

Utilizing the existing Tor network, Tor Messenger will allow its users to openly have IM conversations without having to worry if their messages are being snooped upon by governments or hackers. It disguises the true location of whoever sends the original message, and also encrypts the traffic.

Contrary to what many believe, Tor does not use the ‘Dark Web’ to convey its workings. Instead it bounces users data and identifying information across a global network of routers and internal relays. These ‘bridges’ mask the origin of whoever is using Tor, making them impossible to trace.

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That’s great, but what is Tor anyway?

A good question.

Tor is an acronym that stands for The Onion Router. The name is supposed to represent the analogy of the multi layered bulb vegetable. The onion refers to the layers of anonymity protection and security designed into the Tor network.

The Tor network is essentially run by volunteers who allow their computers to act as gateways for the Tor network to carry out its role. As the volunteer computers are not listed as public hubs for internet traffic in any real sense, it makes it easier for users of Tor to bypass ‘blocks’ put in place by governments and more difficult for hackers to steal users information.

So for example, someone in China could use the Tor network to access banned social media such as Facebook without getting caught. It’s also useful if you just don’t want to be spied on by your government or have some website suddenly start trying to sell you shoes in your exact size.

What’s the Dark Web then?

The Dark Web by contrast is a hidden collection of services and websites that are difficult to access for the lay-person Internet user. The Dark Web is often used for the purposes of conducting nefarious crimes, drug dealing and other illegal activity.

So Tor, and Tor messenger are not the same thing then?

Correct.

Tor is the anonymity network, and Tor Messenger is a standalone program/app, that uses Tor.

Cool, so if I want privacy and complete anonymity from prying eyes and ears I should start using it today?

No.

Tor messenger is still in Beta. That means while it does work, it’s not completely finished and still might have some bugs and creases that need straightened out. The official blog post detailing the release has this to say about it:

“Our current focus is security, robustness and user experience. We will be fixing bugs and releasing updates as appropriate…As such, don’t rely on this product for strong anonymity just yet.”

So be warned, it might not be completely secure, just yet.

The US government won’t be happy about this will they?

It depends on what part of the US government you think is right. The US senate just  passed the controversial CISA bill that gives the government greater abilities to gather and share web traffic data. Ostensibly CISA is supposed to help combat terrorism and cybercrime. That said, 22 of the world’s largest tech companies, and even the Department of Homeland Security came out against what some referred to as a ‘snoopers’ charter. Tor Messenger was also released the same week that the EU passed another controversial bill on Net Neutrality.

At the same time, Tor has been partially funded by the US Department of Defense. Go figure.

Final words:

That the beta version of Tor Messenger has grabbed so much attention in the tech world and beyond has only highlighted the ‘worries people have that chats and other clients are being snooped on,’

Time will tell how good the final version will actually prove to be.