Is Tor legal?

Last edited: September 9, 2019
Reading time: 5 minutes, 27 seconds

Tor The Onion Router LogoTor (The Onion Router) offers an effective way to browse the internet anonymously and even get access to the dark web. To instantly answer the question many are wondering about: using the Tor browser is completely legal almost everywhere in the world. However, it’s always wise to check whether this is actually the case for the country you’re currently residing in.

In general, you won’t have to worry about the police rounding you up because you’ve used Tor to watch a YouTube video or do a Google search. However, if you use the Tor browser to benefit from its increased anonymity while you take part in illegal activities, you are, of course, still subject to the law. If you’re found out, you could be in big trouble.

Tor and Edward Snowden

Quite regularly, Tor is thought of as closely connected to criminal activities. This is the case, because a lot of criminals use Tor for their practices. The browser ensures users are more anonymous on the internet, which makes it their perfect tool. The definition of what’s considered criminal or illegal differs per country – and it can differ a lot. This is also the case for cybercrime. For example, selling harddrugs and weapons online is illegal almost all around the world. However, in some countries, giving your critical opinion on a dictatorship or leaking state documents can be considered a crime as well.

An example of the grey area online practices can fall in, is Edward Snowden’s case. In 2013, Snowden leaked secret documents about the NSA and their espionage to the bigger public. For this reason, he’s now wanted by the American government. What Edward Snowden has done (uncovering state secrets) is illegal according to American law. However, many argue that Snowden was right in doing what he did. After all, don’t all citizens have the right to know when someone – anyone – is watching their moves and listening in on their conversations? This is a moral dilemma in which privacy plays a huge role.

Among other things, Edward Snowden used Tor to reveal secret NSA documents to the broader public. He also called for others to use the Tor browser whenever they go online. According to him, this is one of the few ways that allows you to stay anonymous and use your right to publish freely. Governments and official organisations, such as the NSA in the USA, won’t be able to follow you there – most of the time. Snowden used the browser for activities that were against the law. His call to others, however, wasn’t criminal: he only suggested more people protect their online privacy by surfing the web with the Tor browser. There are some discussions on how safe the Tor browser really is, but the fact remains that Tor makes it a lot harder for governments, websites and other organizations to spy on people online.

Tor and illegal practices

Aside from Snowden’s case, there are many other, mostly less well-known or controversial, examples where Tor was used for illegal business. Silk Road is probably the most famous case. Silk Road was an online marketplace for illegal weapons, drugs, and other products. The website has been traced back to its source and taken offline, but there are bound to be similar marketplaces on the dark web. Even if Tor isn’t illegal by itself, it still gives users anonymous access to these kinds of platforms and pages. Therefore, you could say that Tor indirectly supports criminality because it ensures that criminals aren’t as easily identifiable.

Whenever something as big as the shutdown of Silk Road happens, heavy discussions about whether the Tor browser is needed or not tend to start up. This then leads into broader debates about online anonymity in general. The consideration that people will have to make is between fighting cybercrime and caring about their online privacy. It’s a tough balance to find, which often becomes not just a legal, but an ethical matter.

Due to newsworthy cases such as Silk Road, the general public frequently associates Tor with illegal activities on the dark web. Tor allows you to host websites that are only accessible for other Tor users, which doesn’t help Tor’s case. Illegal marketplaces and fora are easily set up and instantly accessible for the ‘right’ audience. The Tor browser facilitates such practices, even if that’s not the reason the platform was set up.

Tor and privacy

List with magnifying glassTor might be frequently used by criminals, but this doesn’t mean the browser itself is per definition criminal. On the contrary: Tor helps create an online environment that’s all about freedom and privacy. With Tor, you can browse without others (for example hackers, governments and your boss) looking over your shoulder. It strengthens your right to publish and your freedom of speech. If we’re talking about online safety and anonymity, Tor is a great initiative.

Even so, Tor has had to deal with several safety issues. Multiple official organizations, among them the CIA and the FBI, have been able to circumvent and even breach Tor’s security. This way, they were able to track down individuals that were connected to certain illegal practices. Moreover, back in 2017 a weak spot in Tor’s system created the possibility to expose Linux and MacOS IP addresses, cancelling out the browser’s anonymity.

Always take into consideration that, even with the Tor browser, you and your online data might be uncovered in some way. However, as long as you stick to the (local) law, this shouldn’t be a problem for you. Using the Tor browser usually isn’t problematic in and of itself. Even so, to ensure you’re working with the best possible online protection, you could always use Tor in combination with a VPN connection. If you do this, your online traffic is secured in two different ways and you have an extra layer of encryption guarding your privacy and anonymity.

Conclusion

Using Tor isn’t illegal. The Tor browser gives users anonymous access to a free internet. As is the case with everything, this access can be used in both good and bad ways. After all, Tor also allows people to visit criminal websites and marketplaces on the dark web. Despite this, Tor offers an important and adequate option to anonymously spread important information. In short: legally speaking, you can use Tor without any consequences, as long as the things you do online aren’t against the law.

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