Is Tor Safe in 2023? Learn How Safe is the Onion 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 them is the Tor Browser.
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 or Firefox? Is it better? And, above all, is Tor safe to use?
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 the Tor Browser help you stay anonymous? Here’s everything you need to know.
How Tor Browser Works
Tor is an open-source web application designed for free, safe, and anonymous internet browsing. Launched in 2002, its main objective was 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 the 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 relays. 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. 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.
Anyone who 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).
By default, a Tor connection has three relays. When you use Tor Browser, you can rest assured that your traffic is going through at least three relays. As of January 2023, the Tor network has close to 7,000 relays.
How is Tor Browser Different?
The major difference between Tor and mainstream browsers is the built-in privacy feature. Sure, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Opera have a privacy mode. But they do not encrypt your traffic, say, even if you browse through Chrome’s Incognito Mode. Your ISP or a local government agency can still 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. Tor is often 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.
So, Is Tor Legal?
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 – Some countries like Venezuela and China have restricted the Tor network.
Advantages of Tor
Following are the many benefits of Tor Browser:
- Free and open-source – You can download the browser for free and use it for personal and commercial purposes. It’s 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.
- Dark web access – Tor is the easiest way to access the dark web (or darknet), an underground-like part of the internet. It’s mysterious, and contains websites that are otherwise hidden. The dark web is mostly used for illegal purposes such as drug sales, money laundering, and cryptocurrency scams.
- Free VPN-like protection – With Tor, you can hide your 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
Tor does have its fair share of cons:
- Low speeds – Like a standalone VPN, Tor Browser will negatively influence the speed of your connection. Since the Tor network 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 its exit nodes. As a result, you may not be able to access some sites when using Tor Browser.
- Vulnerable volunteers – You cannot vouch for a rogue volunteer who may try to snoop on your traffic.
Notes on Tor’s Vulnerabilities: What Risks Do You Face?
Another risk is with Tor’s bridges, the connecting path between two relays. The bridges do 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 one of the IPs 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 relay. 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. As we have discussed in detail further in this guide, a VPN can cover some of Tor’s drawbacks.
For a while, it was also known that the NSA owned some of the nodes in the Tor network. News like this 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 in the darknet, there’s little that Tor or any other privacy tool can do to safeguard your device, identity, or data. In my opinion, this association with the dark web is Tor’s biggest drawback.
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, Tor Browser is a must-have. And it’s not that its demerits are a deal-breaker. Some of the vulnerabilities that we discussed above can be easily corrected. Here’s how.
Use VPN + Tor
Now, this is the best personal privacy setup for any individual. You can 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 VPN with its own sophisticated encryption. 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 a VPN mostly uses a single 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 why I would always put a proprietary tool like NordVPN or AtlasVPN over Tor when it comes to my online safety. With a VPN for Dark Web, you can also nullify most of the disadvantages of Tor, including the issue with speed.
Use an Anti-Virus Program
Installing antivirus software on your device is the best way to avoid darknet-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 Tor safely is to take a look at the settings of the Tor Browser. 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.
Tor Safety FAQs
Here are some answers to common questions about the Tor Project and its browser.
Is Tor 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 I be tracked on Tor?
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 protects you from hackers and snoopers by encrypting your web traffic. However, Tor’s vulnerabilities and accessing the dark web can increase the likelihood of being attacked.
Is using Tor legal?
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 legislation around open-source software changes 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 make you anonymous. A VPN uses its own server network to do so, giving you better anonymity, better speeds, and additional safety features.
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 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 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. If you don’t use any kind of protection while online, you should get Tor and NordVPN today.