If you’re interested in online privacy and anonymity, you’ve probably heard of Tor. To many, Tor is the basis of true freedom on the internet. But what is Tor exactly? How does it work and why would you use it? What are the main differences between the Tor browser and other privacy-related solutions, such as a VPN or a proxy server? Read all about it in this article!
Safety First: be careful when you start using Tor!
We fully understand you’re excited to experiment with all the possibilities that come with Tor. However, some of those possibilities come with great risks. An example is the dark web. Tor gives you access to this dark part of the internet, but you shouldn’t try to access it without knowing exactly what you’re getting yourself into. That’s why, before telling you more about Tor, we’ll show you some measures you can take to stay safe while using the Tor browser, especially when visiting the dark web.
First of all, make sure to check Tor’s security settings. Tor uses a very effective and reliable system of data encryption, as we’ll see in a bit. Even so, using Tor’s security settings can make your online experience much safer. Secondly, even though this might be quite obvious to many, it’s important to never visit websites and click on links you don’t trust. Of course, this is something you should keep in mind regardless of the browser and safety measures you’re using. Lastly, we recommend you use a good and secure VPN, or virtual private network.
Use a VPN to stay safe while using Tor
Using a VPN at the same time as Tor ensures your data is better encrypted. Moreover, the VPN also hides your IP address by displaying the IP of the VPN server you’re using rather than your “real”, static IP-address. This means you’re much safer while browsing. A VPN provider we recommend for additional safety while using the Tor browser is CyberGhost. This provider offers a very reliable and secure double-encryption system, is very affordable and even has a 45 day money-back guarantee. This means you can try it out to see if it works well for you without having to commit to a yearly subscription.
- Very user-friendly
- High quality for a low price
- Torrents and Netflix possible
What is Tor?
The team behind Tor (The Onion Router) provides free open-source software that helps you browse the internet anonymously. Originally the Tor network was developed with the help of the US navy. The network was developed to enable the US navy and other military organisations to communicate anonymously online. These days, Tor mainly focuses its attention on its browser and the development of a few other privacy tools, which we’ll briefly touch on later.
As we mentioned before, the Tor browser greatly benefits your online privacy and, up to a point, your security. The browser makes use of the vast world-wide server network that the Tor network consists of. When using the Tor browser, your data goes through different Tor servers (or “nodes”). The traffic is heavily encrypted and slowly decoded one layer at a time at the different nodes. This means that whoever is trying to identify you based on your online traffic, will just stumble on the last server your data traffic passed through, the ‘exit node’. In other words: the Tor browser makes it impossible, or at least very difficult, to identify its users.
In order to access the Tor network, you simply need to download the Tor browser. Everything you do online while using the Tor-browser will automatically be encrypted and “anonymized” in the process described above.
One disadvantage that’s often pointed out is that the Tor browser is generally much slower than your bare internet connection. Because your online traffic is sent through different nodes, your internet connection will have to go the long way around and therefore become significantly slower.
What do people use Tor for?
Though Tor’s developers originally created the software for military purposes, it has developed into a tool that can be useful to all – especially to those who have something to hide or will otherwise benefit from online anonymity. Many journalists and political activists use Tor to avoid being prosecuted. Usually, these people live in countries where authorities might punish them for the thoughts and views they wish to share online.
Similarly, journalists use Tor to protect their sources. If a source does not want to risk being revealed, they can communicate sensitive information through the Tor browser. Not just suppliers of information, but also consumers are to be found on Tor. Many people use the Tor browser to access geo-restricted content, to bypass censorship and visit specific websites. After all, a lot of pages, such as those on the dark web, won’t be visible to you when using a “normal browser” such as Safari or Firefox.
Another well-known group of people who use Tor are whistle-blowers. For instance, one of Tor’s most notable users and supporters is Edward Snowden, who revealed documents on classified surveillance programs in the US. Similarly, Tor can be used by employees to expose company or government secrets or address illicit or immoral activities.
The dark side of Tor
While all of this might seem very positive, not everyone uses Tor for what one might call “a noble cause”. For instance, many hackers and cyber criminals use Tor to stay anonymous while conducting their illegal business. Tor is especially useful to criminals, because it provides access to the dark web. This dark part of the internet contains multiple illegal networks such as the former illegal marketplace Silk Road. This used to be a vast network where people bought and sold all sorts of illegal items, such as illegal drugs and fire arms. In short, many criminals use Tor to avoid getting caught when they’re going about their illegal activities.
Tor is not just used to gain anonymity as an internet user. With Tor, it’s also possible to host websites that are only accessible for people using the Tor browser. As such, any website that is hosted using the Tor network won’t be indexed and found by popular search engines such as Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. This makes them part of the dark web.
Is Tor Legal?
The use of Tor itself is completely legal in most jurisdictions, especially in the “western world”. However, as we mentioned, some people use Tor for illegal activities, because of the anonymity the software helps users achieve. Using Tor doesn’t make these activities any less illegal. Therefore, we want to strongly advise you to refrain from such practices. For more information on Tor’s legality, we’d like to refer you to this article on the topic.
Privacy and safety limitations of Tor
Tor is useful, but definitely has its imperfections. Browsing with Tor isn’t as anonymous as you might hope. Although the people at Tor are constantly working to improve their protection, their software has been cracked in the past. Tor has stressed that it wasn’t their network and system that had been breached, but rather individual browsers. Nevertheless, although this might give users some peace of mind, this still shows Tor is not perfect as a stand-alone privacy measure.
With the help of internet providers, law enforcement is sometimes able to expose the identity of Tor’s users. However, they only do so selectively. When something fishy is going on, official organizations might try this method to expose a website or individual. As long as you stick to the law, you should be fine. However, you should realize that using the Tor browser, which many associate with illegal activities on the dark web, might make authorities more inclined to try to track you.
More privacy doesn’t mean more security
Privacy doesn’t necessarily equal security. Tor cannot guarantee you’ll be safe from cyber attacks and cyber criminals while using their browser. The Tor network is incredibly hard to hack, which is amplified by the fact that its code is open-source. However, the same does not hold true for your browser, which is relatively easy to hack. Even man-in-the-middle style attacks are still possible on Tor with the help of ISPs. Fortunately, Tor’s developers are more than aware of these risks and are constantly working to improve the Tor software to make it easier for users to protect themselves.
If you want to use Tor, always make sure to download its most recent version. It’s clear that Tor has limitations, but they’re also constantly working towards better, safer software. You’ll only be able to benefit from this if you keep your system as up to date as possible.
Is Tor the browser for you?
For the average internet user, the anonymity Tor offers isn’t enough of an incentive to start using the software. This is mostly because the encryption makes your connection significantly slower. Besides, as we mentioned previously, carrying out online surveillance still costs time and money, which means governments can’t – and very likely don’t even want to – spy on every single one of their civilians. They have to focus on suspicious online behaviour instead. That’s why most people who spend their time online to, let’s say, watch funny cat videos and google the closest pizza place, will most likely not benefit much from using the Tor browser.
VPNs: an alternative to Tor
While you can browse relatively anonymous with Tor, the browser does not anonymize nor protect all your other internet activities. Applications that run outside your browser will not be protected by the Tor network. If you want to make sure all your online activity is encrypted and anonymized, a VPN might be a better solution for you. Especially if you’re trying to secure your connection from cyber criminals when using a public wifi network, for instance, a VPN could come in very handy.
A VPN allows you to use the internet without restrictions. It helps you bypass any geographical censorship and geographical restrictions in general, such as the restrictions enforced by Netflix. Moreover, a VPN encrypts all your data traffic and makes sure you can browse and download completely anonymously. Most decent VPNs also have far superior internet speeds compared to the Tor browser. This means that streaming, downloading and gaming are generally much easier and less frustrating with a VPN than with the Tor browser.
There are, however, also some things a VPN cannot do. It won’t give you access to the dark web, first of all. If you use a VPN while visiting the dark web, it does help keep you safe from malware, online attacks and other dangers. A second advantage of Tor over VPNs is that Tor is completely free. On the contrary, most good VPNs ask a usually small compensation a month.
Should I use Tor?
Whether you should use Tor greatly depends on your needs. Tor is free, easy to use and usually very effective privacy software. It gives you access to the dark web and has several options to protect your online safety. On the other hand, Tor is quite slow and opens the door to many, many online dangers. If you would rather have a fast connection, for instance for streaming, downloading and gaming, we recommend a VPN. Feel free to have a look at our VPN reviews and comparison tool, to see which VPN would suit your wishes best.
What is the difference between Tor and a proxy server?
Apart from Tor and a VPN, you could also choose to increase your privacy and online security by using a proxy server. However, generally proxy servers only work well for specific purposes and situations, such as accessing The Pirate Bay. Even then, many consider them both less effective and less secure than both Tor and a good VPN. Nevertheless, people often wonder how a proxy differs from Tor. That’s why we’ll have a look at the main differences here.
What does a proxy sever do?
A proxy server, much like a VPN or Tor, is another way to guide your online traffic through a different server that (figuratively) stands between your computer and your data’s ‘destination server’. This server is the proxy, which is offered to you by the person who owns it. The setup used for this is often quite simple: everyone using the service sends their data through the same server. All of those people get the same ‘fake’ IP address.
Why Tor and a VPN protect you better than proxies
People tend to like proxies because many of them are free to use. This doesn’t mean that proxies actually are the best solution to your online problems, however. Proxy servers only offer a certain degree of anonymity and online safety. For example, proxies generally don’t encrypt your data like Tor and VPNs do. Moreover, the privacy a proxy offers isn’t nearly as reliable as that, of say, a good and secure VPN such as PIA.
Another disadvantage of using a proxy server is that the server’s host can see exactly what you’re doing online. In theory they could even log this information, potentially causing you all sorts of trouble. That’s why, if you’re intent on using a proxy server, you should pick one which is under control of someone you really trust. More often than not, you won’t know the owner’s identity, which makes this hard to do. He or she could be collecting your data or even injecting ads into the pages you visit for all you know. In short, a proxy server doesn’t offer you real privacy and security. At least, not in the way Tor or a good VPN would.
How do I install Tor?
Convinced you want to get Tor? Installing Tor on your device isn’t difficult at all. Follow the next few staps and you’ll be able to use the Tor browser in a matter of minutes.
Step 1: Go to the Tor website and click on the download button in the top right corner of your screen.
Step 2: You’ll find yourself on the download page. Select your operating system by choosing one of the four icons shown below. As you can see, you can opt either Windows, Mac, Linux or Android. If you want to download the browser in a specific language, you can click ‘Download in another language or platform’.
Step 3: A file will be downloaded onto your computer. Open this file to start the installation process. Choose your preferred language, then press ‘OK’.
Step 4: The Tor Browser Setup will appear. Choose the destination folder (usually you don’t have to change anything here and the installer will automatically create a new folder for Tor) and press ‘Install’.
Step 5: During the installation process, you can opt for Tor to start automatically once you’re done installing it. If you didn’t do this, you’ll have to open it yourself by looking up the program. The first time the browser opent, you’ll see the screen shown below. In most cases, you can just click ‘Connect’ and get started. However, are you currently in a country that actively censors Tor, such as Turkey, China or Egypt? Then it’s best to click ‘Configure’ first. Tor will help you configure your browser so you won’t be bothered by your country’s online restrictions as much.
Step 6: Once you’re done configuring, press ‘Connect’ and your Tor browser will open. You can now use Tor freely.
Other Tor projects
Apart from the Tor browser, Tor has quite a few other projects that all have something to do with online privacy. The Tor project, as the team is called, is constantly working on ways to protect their users’ online privacy and fighting online freedom. An example of one of their projects is Orbot, which is a free proxy application for Android devices. It uses the same network of nodes as the browser to transport your information over the world wide web. Orbot both helps your online privacy and encrypts your internet traffic. Just like the browser, only for Android.
Another project of the Tor team is OONI and focuses on detecting online restrictions. OONI, which stands for Open Observatory of Network Interference, monitors internet censorship around the world. Since 2012, it has been developing free software that is designed to detect online blocking. The software doesn’t protect your device, nor does it bypass the restrictions it finds. It is simply a mean to get an insight into the global situation surrounding online restrictions and censorship. You can learn more about OONI’s findings on the OONI website.
Not all projects by Tor are still up and running. The Tor project once created a chat program that encrypts all communication. They called it Tor Messenger. With this program, you could still use all your regular services such as Google Talk, Facebook Messenger and Twitter, but your chat data would become anonymous. No logs could be kept, either, so your messages were all completely safe. However, updates of the Tor Messenger have stopped as of April 2018, meaning the software isn’t as secure as it used to be. This is why we don’t recommend using Tor Messenger any longer.
Tor is a great champion in the world of online privacy. Its browser provides users with the freedom to visit any website they like and offers them a certain degree of online anonymity. However, this protection is limited to their browser and does not cover all internet activity, like a VPN would. Moreover, Tor is often closely watched by law enforcement, because illegitimate businesses and criminals often use the browser for illegal activities. The service is free and easy to download, but does have its limitations. If you decide to use the Tor browser, always be careful with unregulated websites and protect yourself against malware with decent antivirus software. We also recommend using other safety measures in combination with Tor, such as a good VPN. If you protect yourself well and think your choices through, the Tor browser can offer a fun, anonymous, and free internet experience.