Darknet Series: A Brief History of Tor

This is the second in a series of blog posts on the basics of the darknet. At the end of this series, you will have a better understanding of the darknet and its history, who uses the darknet and why, why organizations need to care about the darknet, the power of DARKINT and more. If you missed last week's post, you can check it out here.


Tor - The most popular darknet

As we covered in last week's post, Tor, short for The Onion Router, is a group of volunteer-operated servers that allows people to improve their privacy and security on the internet. Users connect to the dark web through a series of virtual tunnels rather than making a direct connection, leveraging the anonymity of this darknet for both legal/constructive and illegal/harmful purposes (which we will examine in an upcoming post).

When someone says they've been on the darknet or the dark web, odds are they're talking about Tor and the Tor browser. Tor is the most popular darknet, allowing users to anonymously access millions of dark web sites. Our database alone currently contains over 175 million onion sites (sites from Tor).

Because it is commonly-used, by darknet standards, we'll cover a brief history of Tor in today's post. The goal here is to provide you with more background on, and a better understanding of, the darknet.

A Brief History

How and why would someone build Tor? Tor was originally designed, implemented and deployed as a third-generation onion routing project of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, with initial research beginning in 1995. The United States was looking for a way to secure and anonymize defense and intelligence communications for operatives both at home and abroad. 

By mid-1996, the first formal publication on onion routing was released and a professional presentation was given, showing forward progress. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) added funding for continued research work in 1997, but by 1999, funding dried up and onion routing development was suspended as all project principals and developers left the agency. Despite funding and personnel setbacks, research on onion routing continued, and DARPA came back into the picture multiple times to provide funding. 

In October of 2003, the Tor network was launched and the Tor code made free and available to all under a license from MIT. Why would it be free and available to all? If you think about it, it doesn't make much sense to set up an anonymous communication network that only one entity utilizes (the U.S. government). By its nature, all communications would be associated with the government and, therefore, not actually be anonymous. Making it free and available to all also means that users other than the government can benefit from the anonymity of Tor.

By the the end of its release year, about a dozen Tor nodes had been set up by volunteers in the U.S. and Germany. By the end of 2004, over 100 Tor nodes existed on three continents. Fast forward to 2011, as Tor grows and usage increases, and there are just shy of 2,000 nodes worldwide.

Tor today

There are over 6,000 Tor nodes in operation around the world today, as users such as the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists and many more turn to Tor for a wide variety of purposes, leveraging the anonymity provided by the network. 

Next week's post will explore who uses the darknet and why. Stay tuned!


Here at OWL Cybersecurity, we're more than happy to answer your questions about the darknet, dark web, deep web and surface web.

Our goal, in addition to providing DARKINT and our darknet security solutions, is to educate you.