Is Tor safe to use?

How Safe is Tor Featured

Tor The Onion Router LogoFor many, Tor has become a household name. It’s a guaranteed, safe way to stay anonymous on the internet. In theory, no one can see what you’re doing online when you use the Tor browser. Moreover, it’s one of the easiest ways to access to the dark web. Over the past years, however, it has become apparent on multiple occasions that Tor’s security suffers from some serious problems. The FBI, CIA, and NSA have all been able to crack Tor’s security. So how safe is Tor really? Is it still a decent way to anonymously surf the web?

The short answer is yes. You can use the Tor-browser to surf anonymously. However, we strongly discourage you from using just Tor for online protection. Multiple incidents have shown that unsafe use of Tor can result in a severe privacy leak or even issues with your online safety. Think of viruses, criminals and hacks. This article will shed some more light on these problems with Tor.

To protect yourself as well as possible, it’s best to use the Tor browser in combination with a decent VPN and some form of antivirus. A trustworthy VPN you could consider is NordVPN. This service has excellent encryption, is very user-friendly, and has thousands of servers available for you to choose from.

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How Tor works

The Tor browser is a special browser that anonymizes your internet traffic. Your data is sent past multiple Tor computers. With this process, the browser ensures that outsiders are unable to see where that data came from and where it’s going. In other words: the Tor browser makes it a lot more difficult for websites and even governments to link your online browsing behavior back to you. At every stop (or node) that Tor uses to cloak your data, an extra layer of encryption is added or removed, depending on which way the traffic is going. Therefore, using the Tor browser should result in a safe and anonymous internet experience.

Girl retrieving an internet file through Tor Nodes

Using Tor isn’t illegal. The browser is used by many different people, among them those who would like to stay anonymous because they’re using the platform to criticize the dictatorship of the country they’re living in. In these cases, Tor ensures freedom of speech. People using Tor still have the possibility to speak freely about political issues, without having to fear getting prosecuted for it. Simultaneously, there are also people that use the Tor browser out of principle. They simply don’t want to be tracked by companies and marketeers. However, it has come to light that Tor isn’t as safe as we all assumed.

Tor’s safety breached

Several court cases have shown that illegal activities on the dark web can sometimes be traced back to specific individuals using the Tor browser. Hence it seems to be possible to discover and collect a user’s data, including their IP address, even when they are being protected by Tor. In the past, Tor users have been found out because the NSA owned a huge part of the Tor nodes. This way, the NSA could clearly see who used those nodes. This was problematic for users who concern themselves with illegal practices. The moment those users are identifiable, the police can track them down and arrest them.

Tor is no longer as safe as it once was. Hackers constantly attempt to breach Tor’s security. Many groups, organisations, and individuals want access to the information the Tor browser is hiding and try to get that time and again. In 2014, one group of researchers succeeded. Financed by the government, they took a closer look at the Tor browser and were able to collect information from the browser for months on end. Weaknesses in the Tor software can surface in less compromising ways as well: in 2017, users found a leak that could easily make IP addresses of Linux and MacOS users visible. Tor didn’t sit around to watch all this happen: whenever a possible leak in the system was discovered, they patched it as soon as possible.

Which risks do I face when I use Tor?

Eye on LaptopPractice shows that Tor isn’t 100% safe. Like every other system, it has its weaknesses. Even though leaks are constantly being patched, you can never be sure whether that happens in time. Aside from this, there are more reasons to be worried about the safety that Tor offers. Here are a few.

First of all, Tor users are regularly hacked. This usually isn’t Tor’s fault. Instead, these hacks are possible because the user’s device is insufficiently protected. This could happen to anyone, which means every user should be aware of it. Criminals, viruses and other malicious content could be hiding on the web pages you visit – especially when you’re surfing the dark web. Therefore, it’s always important to carefully consider every click.

A second danger is that you could still be tracked online, even when using Tor. Bad exit nodes are one example of how this could happen. As illustrated in the picture at the top of this page, an exit node is the last stop before you’re connected to a website or page. If the person who controls this node wants to, they could see all the traffic passing through it. If this happens – as was the case with the NSA – your internet data is no longer private. There’s someone else who can directly see which pages you’re visiting. One thing worth mentioning is that you usually do stay anonymous in such a situation. Even the owner of the exit node isn’t able to trace down the source of the data, because it’s been through at least two other nodes before that.

Can I use the Tor browser for anonymous browsing?

You won’t have to worry too much about people trying to track you online if you only use Tor to browse the regular web. For most governments and other parties, that kind of traffic isn’t relevant enough to trace. Instead, they focus on uncovering illegal activities, some as horrifying as the spreading of child porn on the dark web.

Moreover, there’s no need to be wary of the initial intended audience of Tor either. Tor was initially built to allow for anonymous communication within the US Navy. Some people fear that the US Navy still has secret access to the traffic going through the browser. This is, however, not at all the case. Because Tor is open source, official organizations like the Navy won’t be able to hide any secret entrances within the code. Open source means that everyone has access to Tor’s code. An oddity, therefore, would be discovered and eliminated within moments.

In short, if you use the internet for general browsing, you don’t have too much to fear. Any online surveillance very likely won’t focus on you. However, this doesn’t mean you should use Tor without a care in the world. Before you tackle the internet with this browser, you should be aware of the dangers of the dark web.

Beware: Tor and the dark web

Computervirus LaptopA final security issue we should discuss has to do with the dark web. Tor allows you to access this hidden part of the internet. Other popular browsers, such as Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge and Firefox, can’t do this. The dark web is part of the much bigger deep web. The dark web is unregulated and, therefore, quite fascinating. Sometimes it’s even terrifying. It contains bizarre websites you’d never encounter on the ‘normal’ internet. Among other things, you could come across marketplaces for drugs, weapons, and illegal credit cards.

Not every website on this dark part of the internet is as dodgy as this. Some pages allow people to speak their mind freely without having to fear prosecution from a dictatorial regime. The unregulated nature of the dark net results in a space that holds both the best and the worst of humanity.

Tor gives you access to the entirety of the dark web: it’s internet freedom in a browser. However, this freedom isn’t always safe. Always be careful when you use Tor to visit the dark web. This part of the internet isn’t monitored, meaning it can be very dangerous for you and your computer. Try not to get caught up in websites that infect your computer with malware. Stay away from websites that concern themselves with illegal activities. And finally, beware of hackers – they’re hiding everywhere.

How do I safely use Tor?

There are plenty of dangers waiting for you when you’re considering changing your browser to Tor. These dangers range from privacy risks to more serious attacks on your safety such as viruses and other forms of malware. In both cases, it’s important to arm yourself as well as possible. Here are a few tips that’ll help you get there:

  • Use the safety slider within the browser. Turn this option in your settings all the way up to ‘High’. This ensures you remain unscarred if Tor is hacked by means of JavaScript. It also helps to minimise online tracking. Some websites won’t work as well when you’ve got maximal security enabled, but that’s a relatively small price to pay for protection.
  • Install good antivirus software. Even with the safety settings of the Tor browser optimized, weird things can happen. This is especially dangerous on the dark web. If you use a trustworthy antivirus program, a lot of these problems can be prevented. Once you have installed good antivirus software, always make sure it’s up to date so you’ve got the best and most recent protection.
  • Use Tor alongside a good VPN. Combining two privacy solutions ensures maximum protection. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) encrypts and anonymizes your online data traffic. This means none of your information will be visible, and neither can any of it be traced back to you. A VPN, combined with the options the Tor browser offers, provides you with double protection, making surfing a lot safer.
How safe is Tor? - Frequently asked questions

Have you got a question about Tor’s safety you’d like a quick answer for? Read our FAQ!

Generally using Tor is safe. In fact, Tor was created to browse the internet more freely, safely and anonymously, anonymizing your traffic by guiding it through different servers. However, Tor can be used for some riskier things as well, such as accessing the dark web. This is something which can pose dangers to be careful of. If you want to know what these dangers are and how to safely use Tor, read this article. 

Generally Tor is already quite an anonymous and safe browser as is. However, especially when using Tor to access the dark web, but also in other cases, danger can always strike. That’s why we recommend, apart from using Tor, to also take another precaution: using a VPN. After all, a VPN offers some significant privacy- and safety advantages. Read all about these advantages in this article.

Yes, Tor’s main disadvantage is its slower connection speeds. Tor anonymizes and protects your data traffic quite well. However, to do this Tor guides your traffic through at least three external server spread out over the world. This slows down your connection quite a bit. That’s why we recommend people that want to browse safely and privately, but with better speeds, to use a different, faster privacy-solution: a VPN.

Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.
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  1. I was hoping to get something specific on how the Tor browser might fail to keep me private. But unfortunately your article had very little to say specifically other than the owner of the exit node could be a bad guy. So I guess I still don’t know.

    • It’s true that your privacy could still be compromised when using Tor. You might find the information you’re looking for here in our ‘access the dark web’ article. We don’t necessarily talk about the pitfalls of Tor, but we do give some tips on Tor settings and why you should or shouldn’t change them.

  2. Question: as other people’s traffic passes through your computer does this mean the feds could be coming to accuse you of some despicable porn offense?

    • As far as we can find, using the Tor browser doesn’t automatically turn your device into an exit node. This means that traffic will not look like it’s coming from your device. However, in the past, Tor users that have set up their computer as an exit node (for example privacy activists) have been investigated by law enforcement agencies. Sometimes these people owning the exit node were mistakingly investigated as the person doing illegal things on the dark web. We couldn’t find any information on regular Tor users being investigated because of traffic going through their computer, but Tor users who have their computer set up as an exit node might be investigated and even have their devices confiscated in rare cases.

  3. Exit nodes can’t “see” the information as you stated. If the website has ssl enabled, they can’t.

    • Hence our claim that the person who owns the exit nodes COULD see the information. This isn’t a given, but a possibility. SSL encryption ensures that the content of web pages and your actions on them aren’t visible to anyone but you and the website. However, not all websites use SSL and not every SSL certificate is legit, meaning the forms you fill in still won’t be as private as you might believe them to be. You can read more about this in our article about encryption.

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