At the Tor Project, we build technologies that allow anybody to access the Internet privately. We maintain the software that runs the Tor network as well as utilities and clients to use the network. We also collect anonymous data on the network that allows us to detect problems that may occur, and we connect with the users of the Tor network through training and feedback exercises that help to improve our tools.
In some places, the organizations and individuals we work with are in risk of persecution for the digital services they run. It could be reproductive rights services that are criminalized in some countries or content that is censored by an Internet provider or government. Or it could be that they need to protect their own users when accessing their content and find a way for their community to use Tor Browser for protection.
One way we help human rights defenders and organizations take back their right to privacy online is by helping them to use and set up onion services. Websites that are only accessible over Tor are called “onions” and end in the TLD .onion. For example, the DuckDuckGo onion is https://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion. You can access these websites by using Tor Browser. The addresses must be shared with you by the website host, as onions are not indexed in search engines in the typical way that other websites are.
Last year, thanks to the support of Digital Defenders Partnership, we wrote a series of Onion Guides intended to make it easier for our partners to correctly and safely set up their own onion services. To create these Onion Guides, we collected and improved existing disparate information about the benefits of onion services and how to set them up for a website.
During the last activity of this project, we ran a survey between December 2020 and January 2021. The participants were partner organizations and individuals who were known to use onion services and had received training from Tor in the past. All questions asked were related to the Onion Guides and onion services. Five people responded to this survey.
“[Tor] offers the possibility for those of us who do work for social transformation to access the Internet safely, without exposing ourselves or exposing our processes, but also, it is a tool that is there and can be even more accessible to different people in different territories.” – Survey response.
When asked if they can define onion services, all participants in this study gave different answers. Some related to specific services, like OnionShare and SecureDrop; others associated onion services to a service without metadata; only two participants answered that it is a service that can only be accessed over the Tor network.
When asked if onion services respond to the threats they or their organizations face, most participants answered YES. One of the participants answered NO. Same for the question asking if you feel safer using onion services.
When asked to define the best benefit of using onion services, most participants answered (a) anonymity; followed by (b) accessing digital security guides and tools; other mentions were: (c) sharing and storing documents and sensitive information; and (d) NAT punching.
When asked if they would recommend onion services to anyone, all survey participants answered YES, because of safety.
You can find the Onion Guide in our community portal, well as the section on Onion Services, in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Feel free to use it to set up your own .onion site, and let us know how it works for you.