If you’re privacy-minded or in tune with tech, it’s likely you’ve heard of the Tor browser. But what is Tor, exactly? And more importantly, is Tor safe to use? Tor, also known as the onion router, is considered safe for the average internet user. But Tor can’t protect you from every threat out there. Tor works best when used in conjunction with other tools like a VPN. In this post we review everything you need to know.
What is Tor?
Tor is known as the onion router. Its name is a nod to an actual onion, comprised of layers akin to the layers of encryption used in Tor. Tor was originally developed by the US Navy to protect sensitive communications but has evolved substantially since then. Today, Tor is a browser that enables any internet user to increase their online privacy. Tor is also known for providing access the deep web.
Tor is created by the Tor Project, a non-profit organization designated as a 501(c)3 in the United States. The Tor Project conducts research surrounding online privacy and anonymity, and created their free, open-source software for internet users around the world. As listed on their website, their mission is: “We [The Tor Project] advance human rights and defend your privacy online through free software and open networks.”
People turn to Tor for a variety of reasons, and the Tor Project advertises their browser does the following:
- Blocks trackers by clearing cookies and internet history after each session
- Stops surveillance and prying eyes
- Prevents fingerprinting, or identification based on device or browser
- Encrypts internet traffic to secure it
- Provides access an unrestricted internet to browse freely
The Tor browser offers users an increased level of privacy by utilizing encryption and a network of servers, or relays, owned by volunteers around the world. Tor relays your traffic – or passes it through several servers – before delivering it to its final destination. This means data is not passed between your computer and any one server directly, but instead “relayed” no less than three times. This process obscures the original source of traffic, making it very difficult for the source to be identified. As a result, Tor is advertised as a way to achieve privacy and anonymity online (although we here at VyprVPN know that anonymity is a false promise), and most users select Tor for privacy. Because of how it works Tor can – and does - slow down your connection since it’s not sending your traffic on a direct route.
Why Do People Use the Tor Browser?
People choose to use Tor for a variety of reasons. Most of these reasons center on achieving a better internet experience, and may include:
- Improve online privacy
- Secure their connection, information and data
- Bypass censorship, blocks or firewalls instituted by countries or networks
- Send sensitive or private files
- Access the deep web, or even the dark web
- Use .onion links (Tor hidden services)
Tor can be combined with other popular security tools (such as a VPN) to safeguard sensitive information being transmitted across the web. As noted in the list above, Tor can also be used for more nefarious reasons – like as a mechanism for accessing the deep web - and has sometimes fallen under criticism as a result. While the deep web isn’t inherently nefarious, the dark web (a component of the deep web), is. This means Tor can be used to access black markets and other illicit or illegal activities. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on the privacy aspects of Tor.
Is Tor Safe? Advantages and Disadvantages of the Onion Router
Tor advertises privacy and security, but is Tor browser safe to use? To answer this question we need to step back and clarify what’s meant by the word “safe.” The browser itself is safe, and often listed among the most secure browsers. Nothing is perfect, though, and there have been incidents that illustrate Tor isn’t foolproof. In several instances, United States governmental organizations (CIA, NSA, FBI) have been able to identify sources of traffic or even trace activity back to specific individuals on the Tor network. For a time the NSA actually owned a number of Tor nodes, meaning they had access to the traffic exiting through the node and could easily see who was using them. Bad exit nodes can be exposed and compromise Tor’s security in general, and people owning those nodes have been known to sell the traffic going through them. Hackers also attempt to breach Tor’s security often, and in many cases are successful in hacking Tor users with improperly secured machines. Due to Tor’s open-source nature, though, most issues are fixed up as soon as they are identified.
When assessing the safety or Tor, it’s important to note that one main use for Tor is to access the dark web, and this action itself is not ever safe – no matter how you go about it.
The Best Way to Use Tor
Tor is a secure browser that offers many benefits, but it’s not recommended as a cure-all solution. Tor’s limitations are easily remedied when combined with other tools, and especially in conjunction with a VPN. A VPN encrypts your connection to secure it, but unlike Tor it does not rely upon user-provided relay servers. Instead, a VPN runs your traffic through secured servers owned by the VPN provider. This reduces your risk, assuming you select a VPN provider you can trust.
How to Use Tor and VPNs Together
There are two ways to use Tor and a VPN together: Tor over VPN and VPN over Tor.
The Tor over VPN method is the easiest approach. It means you first connect to your VPN, then access Tor through it. Simply connect to your VPN and then open Tor just like you’d open any browser such as Chrome. As it does when you use any browser or visit any site, the VPN encrypts your connection to protect your data and privacy and hide your IP address. It routes your traffic through the VPN network before connecting to Tor, meaning all your traffic is protected and your ISP (nor anyone else) cannot see that you used Tor. Assuming your provider has a no-log policy, your VPN provider cannot see your activity themselves. The only negative is that a VPN cannot protect you from malicious exit nodes; traffic is unencrypted once it reaches its destination, as a VPN only protects data in transit.
The VPN over Tor method means you first connect to Tor, then connect through your VPN. This method is slightly more complex and not the easiest as it requires manual configuration of your VPN. The biggest benefit to VPN over Tor is that it protects from the malicious exit nodes mentioned above. Your traffic goes from the exit node through your VPN provider’s server, and since it’s encrypted the node operator cannot view your IP or any activity details. VPN over Tor is the best method for the extremely privacy-conscious. The negative here is that your ISP will know that you’re using Tor, although they cannot see exactly what you’re doing. It’s important to note this method is not recommended by Tor’s developers.
The Verdict: Tor is Safe with a VPN
Now that you know how to use Tor, let’s return to our original question – is Tor safe? As you can see, Tor is a safe option for a casual browser, but there is no better (and easier) way to achieve total internet privacy than by using Tor. A VPN provides exceptional security and privacy each and every time you connect. VyprVPN is the best VPN option because of our independently-audited no-log policy, and the fact we do not use any third parties servers in our network. VyprVPN can be set up in a few simple steps and used in a single click. We offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, so trying VyprVPN is risk-free. Achieve online privacy now! Get VyprVPN.