The Onion Router, often abbreviated as Tor is a network that allows a user to protect their identity by providing complete anonymity. According to my understanding as an individual with an acute understanding of cyber-security; it is no surprise that the Tor network has established itself as a pioneer when it comes to getting rid of any unwanted surveillance or tracking.
But… still there are flaws, which can involve in leaking your information, so you need to learn how to use tor browser safely.
However, in recent years, with the rise in awareness over cybersecurity and the control governments have over the Internet; the Tor network has garnered notoriety for the lack of accountability it offers to its users. With that being said, there is a lot of hearsay surrounding Tor, with some people treating the network as a haven for criminals, while others claim for Tor to be the most secure browser out there.
To clear up any assumptions, our readers might be harboring. We’ve compiled an article that gets behind the fundamentals of Tor, including:
- What is Tor, and how does it work to provide anonymity?
- How does the Tor browser hold up against a VPN and is there any difference between the two?
- Is the Tor browser safe to use, and are there any legal repercussions to it?
Right off the bat, let’s get into how Tor works.
How does Tor work?
Let’s get one thing straight. The Tor network and the Tor browser are two separate entities. Most people tend to mix the two when in reality the Tor browser is fundamentally a modified version of the Mozilla Firefox browser that grants access to the Tor network.
The focal principle behind the working of the Tor network is known as the ‘onion routing’ method. As the name of the process suggests, the onion routing method works by concealing the data in layers.
- Simply put, browsing on a regular browser, like Firefox or Chrome, you establish a single connection between a client and server, and there is an increased risk that someone sneaking in on you could easily access your online activities.
With the onion routing method, the connection includes several random nodes (servers) until it reaches its final destination.
- The IP address (which contains the most sensitive information about the user, including their location and name) remains hidden since the data generated by the client ‘hops’ through multiple relays/nodes.
Unlike the typical connection between client and server, the destination server doesn’t get to know about the origin of the data and sees the last Tor relay as the source of the message.
- Owing to the concealment layers at play with the Tor, tracing the author of the data sent becomes virtually impossible. For example, if you’ve searched for YouTube in China through Tor, any third-party sneaking in would see your IP address that of the last relay your data passed through.
With that being said, however, there are still some loopholes within the Tor network, so you need to be careful. For more information, check out our guide for using Tor safely.
Why do you need to use the Tor browser?
Within circles, the Tor browser has quickly garnered a reputation as the world’s most secure browser, and for a good reason. If the only reason you want to use the Tor browser is to look up funny cat videos, we’d suggest against it.
However, if you’re one of the following people, you can protect your identity, and in some cases, your life by using Tor:
- A citizen of a country with strict control over the internet.
- A journalist investigating a controversial topic or conducting undercover interviews.
- An individual looking to protect their data from falling into the hands of third-parties such as hackers, ISPs and governments.
- A person wanting to visit the dark and deep web.
With the heavy encryption, the Tor browser offers, it makes for the easiest way to access the deep and dark web. However, before you run off to scout the dark web for funny cat videos, try to keep in mind how frequently the dark web appears on police reports for drug and child pornography busts.
- If you’re a journalist or whistleblower, or merely a person with an elevated curiosity in the deep web, Tor allows you access to these onion sites. I don’t see why anyone would want to spend their leisure time frolicking in a cyber-space with convicted child sex offenders, but if you’ve got to search for an embarrassing medical condition without being bombarded by ads, tor might have a temporary solution for you.
On a more general note, the Tor browser works for anyone interested in hiding their online activities and reclaiming more control over their browsing habits.
Is using Tor illegal?
With the ‘hopping’ around that data does on the Tor network; naturally, the question of the legality of the situation arises. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might expect. Put, just using the Tor browser isn’t going to get you in any trouble with the law.
With that being said, however, if you engage in any criminal activity while on the Tor network, you’re committing a criminal offense, which is absolutely illegal. Most users flock to Tor, thinking that they’ll be free to buy drugs illicitly from the dark web, which could not be farther away from the truth. Moreover, your ISP can tell if you’re using Tor, which is more likely to get you under the radar of governmental authorities.
Is using Tor safe?
Another prominent question that often arises in relation to the Tor browser is regarding its safety.
The answer to that question demands a deeper dive into how the network works precisely. As we discussed before, the Tor browser and network are in no way perfect.
Although it does encapsulate data in a tight veil and started off as a project of the US navy, there are still many loopholes that could cause users the anonymity that Tor is known for.
Some known vulnerabilities in the Tor network include:
- The research conducted by Carnegie Mellon University in 2014, which enabled researchers to gain access to both ends of the relay and sabotage the communication on the network.
Most individuals have the preconceived notion that the Tor browser is an endgame when it comes to anonymous and secure browsing. On the contrary, several loopholes exist within Tor. As a solution to these flaws, avid Tor users use the anonymous browser with a VPN for added protection.
For all the cyber-security buffs out there, more information regarding the safety of the Tor browser can be found here.
How can you install the Tor browser?
Now that we’ve gotten across all the aspects of security that the Tor browser and network offer, the next question we’re going to answer is regarding the installation of the browser onto your devices. Contrary to popular belief, installing the Tor browser isn’t as difficult as you might expect it to be.
To install the tor browser on your computer, follow these steps:
- Visit Tor’s website and click on the download link for the Operating System that you have and d0ownload the Tor bundle.
- After the download is complete, run the downloaded file and transfer the browser into a folder or pen drive.
- After the completion of the installation process, open the browser and use it as you would any other browser, albeit with the bonus of anonymity.
However, if you don’t own a computer and still wish to use the Tor browser, you can easily download it on to your smart mobile devices via Tor’s website and enjoy anonymous browsing on your phones.
How can you uninstall the Tor browser?
If you had installed the Tor browser just to ease your curiosity about what goes on in the dark and deep web, chances are you’ve gotten bored of it pretty soon and are now eager to uninstall it.
If you’ve installed the Tor bundle, taking the following steps will remove the Onion browser from your PC:
- Go to the Control Panel via the Windows start menu.
- Click on Add/ Remove Programs in the Control Panel.
- Find the Tor browser and other Tor related applications in your installed apps.
- To remove the Tor bundle, single click on each Tor related apps and select Change/ Remove.
- Approve the removal.
For more details on how to remove Tor from your smartphones, along with other Operating Systems, click here.
Is Tor a VPN?
The answer to whether or not Tor counts as a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is definitely in the negative. Although both the Tor browser and a VPN work by providing users with encryption, there are significant differences in the way they work.
The main differences between Tor and VPNs are as follows:
- Let’s get one thing straight- a VPN provides privacy, whereas the Tor network works to ensure anonymity.
- A VPN protects the user’s privacy by masking their IP address with the IP address of its server where Tor is a network of servers and random relays which DO NOT encrypt information at all!
- With Tor’s onion routing method, the message sent passes through randomly-selected servers until it reaches its final destination server. The message you send via a VPN first gets encrypted on your device and is then passed onto a specific server on the VPN providers list.
For a detailed comparison between the two, click here.
Does Tor have a built-in VPN?
Contrary to popular belief, the Tor network is in no way related to a VPN. As mentioned above, the Tor browser is a medium to connect through to the Tor network, which is a collection of random relays/nodes that provide anonymity.
To answer the question, although the Tor browser does bear a resemblance to the technology equipped in a VPN, the two could not be any more different.
VPN v/s Tor Browser
Now that we’ve highlighted the differences between a VPN and Tor, the question arises; “Which one of these is better?”
After a more detailed analysis, we’ve concluded that both VPN and Tor are excellent providers of anonymity and security and live up to their claims. However, both of them have certain advantages and drawbacks too.
To choose Tor over a VPN and vice versa is nearly impossible since the verdict depends on the security problem faced by the user.
If you frequent public Wi-Fi networks and require a fast-paced, and secure Wi-Fi connection, VPN’s are the way to go. However, for amplified security, combine a VPN over the onion browser for double protection!
Onion over VPN- Double up Tor’s security
We’ve already skimmed through the vulnerabilities in Tor’s network, which might stand in the way of the complete anonymity users might desire.
An easy boost to Tor’s anonymous browsing is connecting to a VPN before connecting to the Onion browser. This setup allows more control to the user since he or she can easily configure the VPN’s settings to work better with Tor. To learn more about how to double Tor’s security with a VPN, check this out.
Tor Search Engines:
With the Tor browser configured and installed on to your devices, users need to make sure that they use search engines compatible with the onion browser.
However, that is much easier said than done, since most popular search engine sites such as Google and Bing do not index pages from the deep web on the Tor network. Fortunately, there are still several search engines that work on the Tor network that make the process of using the tor browser a lot easier.
If you have no idea where to get started, have a look at the top picks for the best search engines to use for Tor in my experience!
Tor Browser Alternatives
Throughout this article, I’ve repeatedly mentioned the loopholes and vulnerabilities present in the Tor network and how to fix them. However, if that sounds like too much work for you, there are other anonymous browsers that serve as alternatives to the Tor browser.
After some trial and testing, we’ve compiled an article detailing our top picks, which can be found here.