If you are reading this, you’ve likely heard about how the Tor Browser can help protect your internet privacy and anonymity online.
You probably have questions about the Tor Browser, such as, is it really that good at protecting users online? How does it work? Should I use a Virtual Private Network with the Tor Browser? Why do I need it?
In this comprehensive guide, I will endeavor to answer those questions and many more. I’ll go into how the Tor system works, explain the Onion Network, what a relay is, and how to make the Tor Browser work best to protect your online privacy and anonymity.
The Tor Browser – What Is It?
The Tor Browser (“The Onion Router”) is a product of the Tor Project, which was founded on the belief that “internet users should have private access to an uncensored web.”
The Tor Browser automatically routes its traffic through the anonymous Tor network. The browser isolates each website you visit, so it prevents trackers and ads from following you online. When the browser is closed, it deletes all privacy-sensitive website data such as browsing history and cookies.
The Tor browser provides access to “.onion” websites, which are Tor hidden services that can only be accessed by the Tor browser. These websites can be accessed without worrying about someone snooping on a Tor exit node, offering more private browsing of what is known as the deep web.
The Tor Browser is a popular online anonymity tool among political activists and journalists who fear being monitored and arrested by totalitarian governments. Other users appreciate the browser as it allows them to circumvent censorship. And yes, unfortunately, it is used by those seeking to perform criminal acts.
The Tor Browser does have its flaws, which we’ll go into a bit later. Suffice it to say that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can detect when you’re using the Tor Browser, which can make you the target of increased surveillance by both the ISP and the government. However, there is an easy-to-use way around that, which we’ll talk about later.
How Does the Tor Browser Work?
The Tor Browser is a modified version of the Mozilla Firefox browser and includes the TorButton, TorLauncher, NoScript and HTTPS Everywhere Firefox extensions, along with the Tor proxy. It can be run from removable media (a USB stick, for example).
The browser is available for Linux, macOS and Windows desktop and laptop computers. A Tor Browser from the Tor Project is available for Android, and The Onion Browser from developer and journalist Mike Tigas is available for iOS mobile devices, which the Tor Project links to.
The browser uses a unique security system, originally developed by the United States Navy, to protect the government’s intelligence communications.
All Tor Browser data is encrypted and relayed three times over the Onion Router network, which is composed of thousands of volunteer-run servers, which are known as Tor relays.
This encryption and relaying of your browsing data prevents anyone who is watching from detecting which websites you are visiting. All anyone can see is that you’re using Tor. Your Tor activity can be hidden (more about that later).
The Tor Browser is configured to make all users look the same, making it nearly impossible for users to be fingerprinted based on their browser and device information.
What Is the Onion Network?
Related article: Ultimate guide to safely accessing the dark web
In an onion network, messages are encased in layers of encryption, much like the layers of an onion. The encrypted data is sent through a series of network-based nodes called onion routers.
There are four nodes between your computer and the website you want to connect to.
Each of these nodes removes or “peels” away a single layer, which uncovers the data’s next node destination. When the final layer of the “onion” is reached and decrypted, the message arrives at its destination.
All of this keeps the sender anonymous, thanks to how each intermediary node only knows the location of the previous and next node. This provides high-level anonymity and security.
If this all sounds a bit processor-intensive and a bit slow, you are correct.
Because of the relaying of data through the onion nodes, and the encrypting and decrypting taking place at each node, your internet connection will slow considerably. This means the Tor Browser is not recommended for streaming video, playing games or downloading large files.
Is the Tor Browser Secure?
While the Tor Browser and the Onion Network can be considered an excellent way to protect your online privacy and anonymity, it is by no means a perfect solution, and it has a few weaknesses.
Since each node server in the Tor network is volunteer-operated, you never know who operates the relays that your data is traveling through. While this isn’t an issue for most of the trip (since each relay only has access to the previous and next relays in the network), it is an issue with the exit node.
The exit node removes the final layer of encryption on your data. While this doesn’t tell the exit node what your original IP address or your geographical location is, it could spy on your activity if the website you’re visiting isn’t a secured HTTPS website.
Also, since the Tor Browser is based on the Mozilla Firefox platform, it’s susceptible to the same attacks that other browsers are.
This means you should never change the default settings in the Tor Browser. Stick with the original settings – they’re the most secure.
Disadvantages of the Tor Browser
While the Tor Browser does an excellent job of protecting your privacy and anonymity, it really shouldn’t be used as your daily driver browser.
As I mentioned above, using the Tor Browser will slow down your browsing. Since your traffic goes through a series of relays, getting encrypted or decrypted along the way, things slow way down. This means Tor is a lousy option for streaming video, online gaming or downloading files (torrenting).
If you need to protect or enhance your streaming, gaming, or torrenting activities, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a much better option as a secure connection to the net.
Another reason you don’t want to use the Tor Browser for your daily web browsing is that it draws attention to you. The Tor Browser prevents your ISP from seeing what websites you’re visiting, but it does not prevent the ISP from seeing that you’re using Tor. That could make them suspicious about what you’re doing. That makes you a target for being monitored.
Your ISP may contact a government agency, like the FBI or NSA, who are always interested in suspicious online activity. Unless you’re a fan of having big black SUVs parked outside your home and place of work, maybe only use Tor when you REALLY need to hide your online travels. (If you want to protect all of your daily internet activity, try a VPN.)
How to Use The Tor Browser With a VPN
While the Tor Browser hides your online browsing, it only hides your online activity through the Tor Browser. All of your other online activities remain open to observation.
This is why I strongly suggest using a Virtual Private Network to protect and enhance all of your online activities. A VPN keeps all of your online activities – including your web browsing, online gaming, streaming and file sharing – undercover and safe from being tracked or recorded.
A secure VPN server slows down your browsing much less than the Tor Browser and also opens access to geo-blocked local content around the globe. This makes it a great option for watching videos from streaming services that are available only in other regions of the world.
That said, the Tor Browser and a VPN make an excellent team for protecting your online activities from prying eyes, and provide optimal online privacy protection.
There are two ways to use Tor and a VPN in tandem. They are known as “Tor Over VPN” and “VPN Over Tor.” Let’s take a look at how both options work.
What Are the Differences Between Tor Over VPN vs. VPN Over Tor?
Tor Over VPN
Tor Over VPN is when you first connect your computer or mobile device to your VPN service and then use the Tor Browser to travel the internet.
This encrypts your internet traffic using your VPN’s servers, protecting all of your device’s internet activities from monitoring by outside parties.
This ensures that your real IP address is hidden from the first Tor relay (it sees the IP address that your VPN provider supplies). Then the Tor anonymity network relays further obfuscate your true location, as it relays your browser traffic through several relay locations.
- Hides your use of the Tor Browser from your ISP
- Provides access to .onion websites
- You can simultaneously use your regular browser for other activities
- Hides your true IP address from the Tor relay network
- Some websites don’t accept traffic from Tor
- Your VPN knows your actual IP address
VPN Over Tor
VPN Over Tor is when you first connect to the Tor network and then connect to your VPN.
While Tor Over VPN merely requires you to connect to your VPN provider in the usual manner and then fire up your Tor Browser, VPN over Tor requires you to manually set up a few things before you use it.
Plus, there are only a few VPN providers that offer this option (PrivateVPN being the only one that comes to mind).
- Prevents both your ISP and VPN from seeing your internet traffic
- Enables access to websites that normally block Tor traffic
- Reduces the risk from improperly-configured Tor exit nodes
- ISPs can detect your Tor usage
- Requires manual setup and is not recommended for beginners
- Denied access to .onion websites
- The Tor relay network entry port can detect your true IP address
- All your internet traffic is routed through Tor, slowing everything down
What Is the Best VPN for Use With Tor?
Using a VPN in conjunction with the Tor Browser is an excellent way to keep your online travels secure and private. A VPN’s ability to hide your Tor usage from your ISP and from government authorities makes for a valuable addition to your online privacy arsenal.
Can I Access the Dark Web With the Tor Browser?
The dark web (often referred to as the “dark net,” “black web” or “black net”) is a small section of the deep web that is hidden and kept inaccessible to regular internet users on purpose.
The dark web is web content that exists on darknets, which are overlay networks on the internet that require specialized software (such as the Tor Browser), configurations, and authorization to access. Arguably, the best-known tool used to access the dark web is the Tor Browser.
The dark web is a refuge for information leakers and whistleblowers. Edward Snowden used the Tor global network on a regular basis. The dark web is the perfect avenue for communicating and publishing sensitive information with no fear of retribution, such as imprisonment.
The dark web is a popular privacy tool for activists and revolutionaries (such as Anonymous). It serves as a way for activists to organize gatherings and other activities in secret, with no worries about giving away their plans or position away to the authorities.
The dark web is a very popular platform for journalists, political bloggers, and political news publishers, especially for those living in countries where strict censorship shields are the rule.
Unfortunately, the dark web is also where underground marketplaces flourish, selling drugs, weapons, stolen IDs and credit cards, and other ill-gotten goods. It is also used to facilitate human trafficking, money laundering, and worse.
This is why I strongly advise anyone visiting the dark web to exercise the greatest of caution during their dark online travels. For more information about the dark web, read this article about how to access it and stay safe while doing so.
We’ve learned a lot from this article. We’ve found that Tor is an excellent way to keep your internet browser-based online activities undercover, although we’ve also seen how using the Tor Browser can bring unwanted attention. Luckily, a VPN can help prevent that.
We’ve also looked at how Tor allows users to access the dark web, and we’re now aware of the resources and dangers that await us there.
Now you have enough information about what Tor is, how it works, and how best to use it, allowing you to make an informed choice on its proper use, and how to best protect yourself online when using it.
Tor Browser FAQ
Is There a Search Engine for .Onion Sites?
There are numerous search engines for .onion websites. DuckDuckGo offers an .onion version of its search engine, while Sci-Hub offers access to millions of scientific articles and papers. Library Genesis offers search for collections of books on such topics as computers, business, technology and more. These are only a few of the .onion search engines that are available.
There are also search engines for dark web marketplaces and services. However, due to the danger involved in visiting such sites, I’ll leave it to my readers to find their own way there. However, my advice is to stay safe and avoid those areas.
Is It Illegal to Use the Tor Browser?
Merely downloading, installing and using the Tor Browser is not illegal. There are many safe and legal uses for Tor. However, many Tor users do so to facilitate illegal online acts.
However, criminals soon found that just using the Tor Browser can bring unwanted attention to their online activities. The NSA and FBI have been known to specifically target Tor users. Internet Service Providers also become interested in your Tor-based online activities, and at least one ISP ::COUGH!:: Comcast! ::COUGH!:: has threatened to cut the service of Tor users.
Can You Use The Tor Browser on a Mobile Device?
Yes, Tor-capable browsers are available for both major mobile platforms, Android and iOS.
An official Tor browser from the Tor Project is available for Android in the Google Play Store, while iOS users can take advantage of The Onion Browser from developer and journalist Mike Tigas, which is available for iOS mobile devices. While the iOS solution is not an official one, the Tor Project links to it, providing the browser its tacit approval.
Is Tor Browser Safe to Use?
The Tor browser was built to provide improved online anonymity and security. However, be careful when using the Tor Browser to access the Dark Web. The Dark Web is a dangerous place and is full of peril.