Is Tor Safe to Use in 2023? Only if You Do This…
- The Tor browser is a completely safe free-to-use tool you can use to browse dark web sites and access the Internet anonymously.
- Tor is often associated with illegal activities, even though using Tor is perfectly legal in most countries worldwide.
- While Tor can keep you anonymous, it’s best to use Tor browser in combination with other tools such as a VPN to lock up your online security and privacy.
Although popular for its excellent encryption and routing methodology, Tor Browser is often regarded with suspicion. A common question is: why should one use Tor over Chrome, Firefox, or any other browser with a trusted reputation? Is it better? And, above all, is Tor safe?
The answer is yes, Tor is safe to use and more secure. Tor Browser encrypts and routes your traffic through multiple relays. Each relay gives additional anonymization, thereby creating an onion-like encryption bubble. This not only makes you safe online but also hides your data, identity, and web location.
But what exactly is the Tor Project? How does it work? And how does Tor hide your traffic and help you stay anonymous? There’s a lot you need to know before you use Tor. And, we’ve got all of the information, in one place. Let’s get into it!
What is The Tor Browser?
Tor, short for The Onion Router, is perhaps the easiest way to stay anonymous online. It’s free, open-source, and used by millions of users around the world every day.
Originally a web tool designed for anonymous browsing, Tor has now expanded into other applications too. One of these applications is the Tor Browser. The most popular aspect of the onion router, the Tor browser, was announced in 2008.
You can currently use it on one of four available operating system options. These include Windows, Linux, macOS, and Android. When it comes to the latter, you can download the Tor browser from the Google Play Store or from the Tor Project site.
How Tor Works
Tor is an open-source web application designed for free, safe, and anonymous internet browsing. Launched in 2002, the onion router has the objective to help users keep their web communication private. The creators of Tor intended its use for hiding one’s online identity while browsing without any kind of monitoring.
To make this application more accessible and easier to use, Tor Browser was launched in 2008. When you use this special browser, your traffic is routed through multiple relays that are scattered over the Tor network. It hops from one relay to another and so on.
This routing, combined with encryption, makes it difficult for interceptors to link your online activities back to you. It anonymizes your connection and lets you surf the web freely and safely, without the fear of anyone monitoring you.
More than anything, it deflects traffic analysis and surveillance. While the Tor Project is the underlying software of the Tor browser, both terms are often used interchangeably.
In today’s hostile web, your internet service provider (ISP), a government agency, or a hacker may want to monitor your web activity. Using Tor Browser then is a way to stay hidden.
How Does Tor Make My Connection Safe?
The Tor network is made up of thousands of relays (or nodes) scattered across the globe. These relays are maintained by a community of volunteers. When you open a website on Tor Browser, your traffic essentially bounces through this network of entry and exit nodes. This is called onion routing. But how does it make you safe?
Tor is safe because it routes your traffic through at least three relays. This is the minimum, as anything under wouldn’t provide you with any privacy.
More precisely, your Tor traffic goes through entry and exit nodes, as well as at least one middle node. And each relay employs encryption, giving you three layers of protection.
This multi-layered encryption is where Tor gets its “onion’ name. Such an onion network ultimately saves you from snooping. No one can see your browsing activity, as they will only come across a new layer once they peel off the initial one.
This means that whoever tries to intercept your data will be unable to make sense of your traffic. And even if they do, they cannot trace it back to you. The communication will be seen between the exit node and the recipient (the website). As of January 2023, the Tor has close to 7,000 relays.
Is Tor the Safest Browser?
The major difference between Tor and mainstream browsers is the built-in privacy feature. Sure, other browser competitors like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera have a privacy mode.
But they do not encrypt your traffic. Even if you browse through Chrome’s Incognito Mode, your traffic is still not anonymous. Your ISP or a local government agency can track you and monitor your traffic.
With Tor Browser, your traffic is automatically relayed through its onion routing network. This hides your web location and separates you from your online activities.
In other words, imagine Tor Browser as a web browser with a free built-in multi-hop VPN and advanced security features.
So, to answer the crucial question of “how safe is Tor?”, we can say that it is generally regarded as the safest browser in the world. This is because it hides your IP, blocks web tracking, and automatically clears history, cookies, and cache after each session.
Who Should Use Tor?
Many casual online users associate with browsing the dark web and accessing the content that it hides. However, there are some specific benefits that certain people can obtain from using Tor. Here are some examples of users who might find Tor very valuable:
Journalists and Whistleblowers
Individuals who need to communicate sensitive information or access blocked websites may use Tor to protect their identity and avoid surveillance. Journalists and whistleblowers often put their personal security on the line in pursuit of the truth and doing the right thing.
Activists and Human Rights Defenders
People who are working to promote freedom of speech, access to information, or other political causes may use Tor to protect their online activities from the government or other adversaries.
People in Countries with Internet Censorship
Tor can be used to bypass Internet censorship and access blocked websites, allowing people to freely access information and communicate with others without fear of being monitored or punished.
With the increasing amount of online tracking and data collection by companies and governments, many people are using Tor to protect their online activities and prevent their personal information from being shared or sold without their consent.
Advantages of Tor
Tor users can count on many advantages. Here are the biggest benefits of the Tor Browser:
- Free and Open-source – You can download the browser for free and use it for personal and commercial purposes. The onion browser app is available across operating systems such as Windows, macOS, Linux, and Android.
- Community-Driven – Tor’s network of relays is maintained by volunteers who share the vision of personal privacy and a free web. This independence and the lack of a capitalist element are what make Tor safer than other commercial privacy tools.
- Onion Encryption – Onion routing is not a new technology but Tor has brought it to the mainstream. With multi-layered encryption, Tor Browser provides better protection than proxies and free VPNs.
- Simple Setup – Tor browser is plug-and-play software and can be installed as easily as any other executable application. All you need to do is download Tor from the official Tor Project site and you can use Tor browser right away without adjusting any settings.
- Dark Web Access – The Tor browser is the easiest way to access the dark web (or darknet), an underground-like part of the internet. The dark web is mysterious and contains websites that are otherwise hidden. The dark web is mostly used for purposes such as drug sales, money laundering, and cryptocurrency scams. Because of this, most people link the dark web-Tor connection is often tied to illegal activities.
- Free VPN-like Protection – You can use Tor to hide your real IP address and web activities. It’s the only free way to avoid traffic analysis and surveillance. You can also use it to unblock regional restrictions and bypass censorship.
- Onion Sites – Tor can be used to access .onion sites. These are special sites created to avoid government surveillance. Mostly used in the journalism and activism fields, .onion sites can be accessed only through Tor.
Disadvantages of Using the Tor Browser
Using Tor certainly carries a lot of upsides. That said, this dark web browser doesn’t come without its downsides. Here are the most significant disadvantages you should know of before you use Tor:
- Low Speeds – Like a standalone VPN, Tor Browser will negatively influence the speed of your connection. Since Tor routes your traffic through multiple relays, you are likely to get reduced download and upload speeds. However, Tor has low latency, so the difference in speed will be negligible if you are on a high-speed network like broadband, 5G, or optical fiber.
- Backlisted Relays – As noted above, Tor is more popular among a certain type of web user. This has affected its reputation, with some websites blacklisting Tor exit nodes. As a result, you may not be able to use Tor to access some sites when.
- Vulnerable Volunteers – You cannot vouch for a rogue volunteer who may try to snoop on your traffic. Malicious exit nodes could put your online privacy in danger, and there’s nothing you can really do about it.
How Tor Compares to Other Privacy Tools
Tor is an excellent privacy option, but it’s far from the only privacy tool you can use. Let’s discuss a few other privacy tools and see how they compare to Tor:
- Virtual Private Networks – VPNs are often used to encrypt internet traffic and hide IP addresses. While they can be effective at securing internet traffic, they may not provide the same level of anonymity as Tor. A subpar VPN service might expose your IP address to the VPN provider and may log your activity. This is why it’s crucial to pick a reliable VPN with IP leak protection features.
- Proxy Servers – A proxy server acts as an intermediary between a user’s computer and the internet. It can help hide your IP address and encrypt traffic but isn’t anonymous like Tor. Proxy servers can still reveal your real IP address to the proxy provider and may not encrypt all traffic.
- Secure Browsers – Some browsers, such as Brave and Firefox, offer built-in privacy features, such as blocking trackers and encrypting traffic. These features can help protect your privacy. However, if you want maximum anonymity, these browsers can’t match the onion browser in this regard. Secure browsers may still allow websites to identify your IP address and track your activity.
- The Invisible Internet Project – I2P is similar to Tor in that it is an anonymizing network. However, it is designed to be more secure and decentralized than Tor. Unlike the previous tools, I2P can match Tor’s anonymity features. However, it isn’t as user-friendly as Tor and has a smaller user base.
Common Myths and Misconceptions About Tor
Despite being online for over two decades, Tor is still surrounded by a number of myths. There are several common misconceptions you’ll come across when browsing the internet. Here are the four most common ones:
The Tor Network is Illegal
Tor is not illegal. It is a tool that can be used for both good and bad purposes, just like any other technology.
While some illegal activities have been carried out using the Tor network, many people use it for legitimate reasons such as protecting their privacy and freedom of speech.
That said, some countries have banned access to this network. So, make sure to check the Tor legal status in your location before using this browser.
Tor is Only Used by Criminals
While it is true that some criminals use the Tor network to carry out illegal activities, such as selling drugs and weapons on dark web marketplaces, the majority of Tor users are law-abiding citizens who are concerned about their online privacy and security.
Tor Works Too Slow
There is slight truth in this myth in that Tor can be slower than a regular Internet connection. This is because the traffic is routed through multiple nodes.
But the speed can vary depending on many factors. These include the location of the user, the number of nodes used, and the amount of traffic on the network.
Tor Makes You Completely Anonymous
This is another myth that can be detrimental to your online privacy if you believe in it entirely. We’ve talked above about how Tor anonymizes your online activities through a system of relays. But, this doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed complete anonymity in all scenarios.
Not all of your traffic is encrypted by default, for instance, if you access HTTP websites when using Tor. Moreover, issues like compromised exit nodes and network attacks can still expose your identity. Because of these aspects, you shouldn’t rely on Tor as your sole privacy tool.
Important Legal and Ethical Considerations of the Tor Browser
Against the general perception, Tor is not dangerous or illegal. It is completely legal to use as a standalone application. You can safely download Tor Browser right now. It gets tricky only if you use it for illegal activities such as bypassing censorship or downloading pirated content from the dark web.
Even then, using Tor is not why you might be breaking the law. Tor’s widespread usage by certain groups like hackers is one reason why it might be perceived as a possible illegal tool.
However, Tor is 100% safe and legal for personal consumption. Even news organizations such as The New Yorker and The Guardian use Tor to protect their journalists.
Note – netizens from countries such as China and Venezuela can’t access Tor. If you live in a country that might restrict access to the onion network, make sure you’re familiar with local laws.
Notes on Tor’s Vulnerabilities: What Risks Do You Face?
Another risk is tied to Tor bridges, the connecting path between two relays. The Tor bridge does not necessarily encrypt both the IP addresses (of the sender and recipient).
One of these may be in plain text at any given point in time. This can reveal an IP address and be used for further snooping or traffic analysis. It can be a serious breach if the interception is between you and the first relay.
It is also possible for a spymaster to masquerade as a Tor exit node. Since this is where decryption happens, the spy could access your web traffic.
This is one open vulnerability (bad exit nodes) that Tor has not been able to patch yet. These two risks are why Tor and VPN are recommended to be used together.
This is a note worth always keeping in mind. In theory, the entry node and the exit node are two different people. The exit node doesn’t know the entry’s identity and vice versa. However, if an individual or organization is controlling many nodes, there’s a chance that they can see both the entry and exit node data.
For a while, it was also known that the National Security Agency owned some of the nodes in the Tor network. News of law enforcement agencies owning Tor nodes does not help inspire confidence about Tor’s claim of anonymity.
Above all, Tor’s major application is still dark web access. And once you are on the dark web, there’s little that Tor or any other privacy tool can do to safeguard your device, identity, or data.
In our opinion, this association with the dark web is the biggest drawback of the onion browser. With all of that in mind, if you’re not using Tor for any illegal purposes and not sharing personal data through the browser, there’s no reason for concern.
Using Tor Safely
While Tor may look shady to some, it’s still the only free and reliable way to get privacy protection. If you are not inclined to pay, using Tor free of charge is always the go-to move. And it’s not that its demerits are a deal-breaker.
Some of the vulnerabilities that we discussed above can be easily corrected by combining Tor with other privacy tools. Here’s how.
Combine Tor With a VPN Service
The best personal privacy setup for any individual Tor user is to use a high-quality VPN along with Tor Browser to get maximum protection. One of the risks with Tor is the vulnerability of your connection with the first relay (entry node).
This can be mitigated by using a reliable VPN with its own sophisticated encryption. This is mainly due to the fact that a VPN can cover some of Tor’s drawbacks. In other words, a VPN and Tor work together to capitalize on each other’s strengths and offer you uncompromising online security and privacy.
For example, you can install a military-grade VPN like NordVPN to tighten Tor’s loose ends. NordVPN has a feature called Onion Over VPN feature that can strengthen your Tor usage. It takes care of the vulnerability introduced by bad exit nodes.
The difference between Tor and a VPN lies in the encryption. While most VPN providers only use one VPN server to route your traffic, it is far safer than a decentralized Tor relay. A service that you pay for is more likely to protect you than a community-driven network, right?
It is for this reason that we would always put a proprietary tool like NordVPN or AtlasVPN over Tor when it comes to online safety. With a VPN for Dark Web, you can also nullify most of the disadvantages of Tor, including the issue with speed.
When using these two tools jointly, you can combine them in a couple of ways. You can use them in a Tor over VPN setup or a VPN over Tor setup. The latter’s main perk is protection against a bad Tor exit node, while the former protects you from malicious entry nodes.
That said, VPN over Tor is a less useful combination of the two. One of the reasons for this is that VPN over Tor requires a more complicated setup. For most users, Tor over VPN is the better solution, as it resolves all of the inherent security issues that Tor is exposed to.
Use an Antivirus Program
Installing antivirus software on your device is the best way to avoid dark web-related vulnerabilities. Operating systems like Windows claim that there is no need for any additional security software.
But it’s not true. Having robust anti-virus and anti-malware software can protect you from sophisticated attacks via the dark web.
Note – Focus on this only if you plan to access the dark web. Otherwise, this additional expense can be avoided.
Customize Tor’s Settings
Another way to use the Tor browser safely is to take a look at the settings available in it. While you can access Tor and use it without any sophisticated technical knowledge, there is a lot that you can change and customize to your needs.
For instance, turning the security level to “Safest” can give you the best protection on Tor. If you want to use Tor with maximum security, adjusting Tor settings is a must-do step. This is regardless if you already use any of the above-mentioned privacy tools.
Use Only Sites That Have HTTPS Encryption
While the Tor browser works to encrypt your traffic, it doesn’t actually encrypt the part of it that travels from the exit node to the site you want to access. This isn’t an inherent problem but can present an issue if you’re accessing HTTP sites.
Even though we’re in 2023, not all websites still support HTTPS encryption. Because of this, it’s wise to keep an eye on the URL. Only use sites that feature a padlock or an onion icon and start with HTTPS.
Tor Safety FAQs
Is the Tor browser safe?
Yes, Tor is safe because it encrypts your web traffic and makes you anonymous. Its onion routing operation anonymizes your connection and separates you from your online activities. With Tor, you can browse the web safely without the fear of traffic analysis, surveillance, and censorship.
Can Tor users be tracked while using this browser?
No. Tor uses a network of relays scattered around the world to encrypt and hide your web traffic. Using Tor makes you anonymous and fully detaches your identity from your web activities.
Can I get hacked using Tor?
No, you are less likely to be hacked while using Tor. Instead, Tor encrypts your web traffic and protects you from hackers and snoopers. However, Tor’s vulnerabilities and accessing the dark web can increase the likelihood of being attacked.
Is using Tor illegal?
Yes, using Tor is 100% legal and safe. Tor is a legit web browser that is aimed at personal private communication. However, engaging in illegal activities using Tor can get you in trouble. Since the laws around open-source software change constantly, Tor may be blocked in some countries. An example is Venezuela.
Is Tor a VPN?
No, Tor is not a VPN. It is a decentralized network of relays that encrypts and bounces your web traffic to anonymize your browsing activity. It also provides dark web access. A Virtual Private Network uses its own VPN server base to do so, giving you better privacy, better speeds, and additional safety features.
Is Tor Better Than a VPN?
Tor is better than VPN providers when you’re primarily looking to anonymously browse the Internet and access the dark web. On the other hand, a VPN connection is better for many other purposes. You can use VPN servers for torrenting, unblocking geo-restricted content, and securing your connections.
Has Tor had breaches in the past?
Yes, Tor has experienced multiple breaches since it was launched. Many of these were due to its vulnerabilities, which were later patched by the project. Some notable breaches that managed to crack Tor’s security include the 2011 bad apple attack, Heartbleed bug, and Operation Onymous.
What are some other applications that use the Tor Project?
In addition to Tor Browser and its mobile version Orfox, Vuze, Brave, and Bitmessage are some other applications that have Tor functionality. There was also a Tor Messenger between 2015 and 2018 that imitated instant chat platforms like Pidgin. Tor Messenger was later replaced by TorChat.
Tor is a boon for the free internet movement. Ever since its launch, it has provided netizens with a free and safe way to browse the world wide web. Although majorly utilized by tech groups, Tor has slowly found adoption by the larger web populace.
We have to remember that a huge chunk of online users still surfs the web without any form of privacy protection. For them, Tor Browser is a must-have tool. Its superb onion-routing technology can be an answer to the rising number of cybercrimes around the world.
That said, it still might not be the best option for every online user. With this in mind, some users would benefit more from using a trustworthy VPN service.
Ideally, combining a VPN with Tor will provide you with the best combination for protecting your online privacy. Get Tor and NordVPN today and ensure your Internet freedom!