If you are switched on about internet privacy, the chances are that you already know something about the Tor project.
Tor, which is an acronym for The Onion Router, is an online security and privacy tool that bounces your data around different relays or nodes to help mask your identity online.
It is most commonly involves connecting to the internet by using the open-source software called the Tor browser, which is also the most common way of accessing the ‘dark web’ too. However, there are other methods to access Tor too.
The Tor project is sometimes put up on a pedestal as an alternative to a VPN. But is it really another viable option for most users? And the biggest question of all, is Tor safe to use?
In this article, we will look to answer all of these questions and more and give you all the information you need to use Tor in a safe and secure way.
What is Tor?
For those not already in the know, it’s probably best to begin by explaining exactly what we mean by Tor.
As we have already said, Tor stands for The Onion Router. It is so named because it offers multiple layers of end-to-end encryption, much like the layers of an onion.
It can be used to access Onion links, which lead to different Onion sites. An Onion site address that you type into the address bar does not look like the ones that you type into a regular browser, but rather like seemingly random strings of numbers and letters ending in “.onion.”
Tor was originally created by the US Navy to send sensitive information and secure communications. But, is now run by the not-for-profit Tor Foundation, who are considered Tor’s developers.
You access Tor using the Tor browser. Once connected to this, when you search for something online, your data is bounced around the Tor network of nodes. Each time it has a different node, the IP Address linked to your internet data is changed. This happens multiple times before your data is eventually sent on to its ultimate destination.
This process hides your real IP which helps to hide your browsing activity and stay semi-anonymous online. It is also a good way to protect sensitive data.
Again, there are other methods to access the Tor network, but the Tor browser is by far the most user-friendly.
What can you use Tor for?
People use Tor for a variety of different reasons including:
- Accessing the dark web
- Securing your internet connection
- Attempting to access the web anonymously
- Evading online surveillance from state entities or hackers
- Blocking trackers by automatically clearing your cookies and internet history after each session
- Encrypting internet data
How does the Tor network work?
Tor consists of a network of relays or nodes which are owned and operated by volunteers around the world.
When you are connected to Tor your internet traffic is sent into that network and bounced between several relays before being delivered to its final destination. Each time it hits a relay, the IP Address it is linked to changes.
Tor assures all users that their data will hit a minimum of three nodes before heading off to its intended destination.
This process obscures the original IP of your data meaning you are semi-anonymous online and anything you do during your semi-anonymous browsing is very hard to trace back to you.
Anonymous browsing and achieving internet freedom does sounds great, but there are advantages and disadvantages to using the Tor browser.
Advantages of using Tor
The main advantages to using Tor are:
- Free to use – Anyone can download the Tor browser for free onto their Android, Linux, macOS, and Windows devices.
- Open-source – Tor is an open-source project which means anyone can download and modify the source code. It also means hackers can examine it for vulnerabilities so it should be more secure.
- Encrypted – Tor encrypts your internet data as a VPN service does which increases your security.
- Hides your IP address – By bouncing your data around the Tor network, you can be sure that your real IP and therefore location is hidden. This improves your online privacy and separates you from your online activity.
- Access the dark web – The Tor browser lets you to access and browse the dark web.
Disadvantages of using Tor
It all sounds good so far. But there are a couple of crucial disadvantages to using Tor:
- Speed – A VPN, which redirects your data through a single server can impact connections speeds a little. A Tor connection bounces your data around multiple servers and this inevitably means it causes a greater speed lag.
- Reputation – Because the network of Tor nodes is inexorably linked with the dark web, it has a reputation for being used by criminals. This is not really fair but nevertheless it has stuck and as a result there are more than a few services that do their best to block users of the Tor browser from accessing their sites.
Tor’s safety concerns
You might be wondering is Tor browser safe? Is Tor safe, itself?
Back in 2020, a rather ominous story about Tor and the way Tor works appeared on Medium.
It was pretty technical but the gist of it was that someone managed to breach Tor’s security, and that malicious hackers had compromised almost a quarter of all Tor relays or nodes and were using these to compromise the online privacy of Tor users.
In other words, when you connect to the network of Tor nodes, there is a one in four chance that your data is being monitored by hackers using bad exit nodes. As the author concludes, “things have become even worse, specifically when it comes to malicious Tor exit relay activity.”
It is important to note that this is an anonymously written story and has not, to the best of our knowledge, been stood up by data that has been published anywhere else.
But it nevertheless threw the attention of the internet, and particularly the estimated 2.5 million Tor users, on the safety of the Tor network, and whether using Tor securely is still an option.
There have also been a number of court cases that have similarly shone a light on Tor’s security. There have been reports that many Tor nodes are actually owned and controlled by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the USA. GCHQ in the UK is also thought to be in on the action too.
Documents released by Edward Snowden revealed that the government agencies have undertaken attacks involving “trying to spot patterns in the signals entering and leaving the Tor network, to try to de-anonymise its users… if one of these law enforcement agencies controlled a large number of the “exits” from the Tor network, they could identify a large amount of the traffic passing through it.”
Essentially, all your traffic would be compromised, despite the Tor method being applied. This is one of the biggest Tor vulnerabilities that internet users need to keep in mind during Tor usage.
There are also plenty of examples of hackers managing to crack the Tor software and identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities. All software has gaps like this and to their credit, the Tor Foundation patches quickly when flaws are found. But all these breaches are important reminders that Tor is not 100% safe.
Is Tor safe?
Broadly speaking yes, the Tor browser is safe to use. Indeed, it is regularly included on lists of the safest browsers to use and Tor securely hides your identity.
But as we concluded in the previous section, it is not 100% secure. This is largely because no software can guarantee the security of its users. A lot of people think of Tor as being a total solution to internet security and privacy and the truth is that this is not the case.
Tor’s big vulnerability is its exit nodes. It is here that the data of Tor users is decrypted and therefore becomes visible. The security of Tor depends on the entry and exit nodes being run by dependable and trustworthy individuals or organisations.
But that cannot be guaranteed. As we have just seen, the NSA and GCHQ has attempted to control Tor exit nodes.
Doubtless, there are malicious hackers who have tried the same. Becoming an exit node holder at such level would allow them to see internet traffic and in many cases trace it back to the original user.
How to make Tor safe with a VPN
The simplest way to make Tor safer to use is to combine it with other internet security and privacy tools. The best tool to use alongside the Tor browser is a VPN provider, as a VPN encrypts your data instead of just hiding the identity of the average internet user.
There are two different ways to combine Tor with a VPN provider; Tor over VPN and VPN over Tor.
Tor over VPN
Tor over VPN is the easiest way to combine a VPN with the Tor browser. All you have to do is connect to the best VPN service of your choice. The fastest server is usually recommended to maximise connection speeds. This encrypts all of your data and redirects traffic though a VPN server to mask your IP Address.
It is worth noting that there are a few VPN providers that offer great VPN deals, such as NordVPN, that offer Tor over VPN within their existing security benefits.
Then, you can just open Tor browser and use it in much the same way as you would use any other browser. It means that even if you are unlucky enough to end up with a dodgy Tor exit node, your real IP will still be hidden by your reliable VPN.
The only downside to this method is that a VPN only protects data while it is on the move and will not be able to stop a dodgy exit node seeing the content of your internet data once it is unencrypted at its destination.
VPN over Tor
The VPN over Tor approach is slightly more complicated as it requires the manual configuration of your VPN after you have connected to the Tor network.
But it is worth the effort because this method can protect against malicious exit nodes.
Essentially, your internet data leaves your exit node but then goes through your VPN provider’s server. Because it is still encrypted at this point, the exit node operator cannot see either your IP or the content of your internet data.
The downside to this approach is that, while they cannot see what you are doing, thus ensuring your privacy online, your Internet Service Provider will be able to tell that you are accessing the deep web Tor. For this reason, the Tor Foundation does not recommend this method.
Tor safety features
Most online security and privacy experts will recommend Tor alongside a VPN to ensure you are as safe as possible when using the Tor browser.
But there are a number of other security features built into Tor which you can also use to enhance your online security too. These include:
Hides IP Addresses
The Tor browser will hide your original IP by default which is great for protecting your online anonymity.
Clears history and data
Unlike some popular browsers such as Google Chrome, the Tor browser will not keep a log of the different websites you visit and data you input into them. Instead, it will automatically clear your history and form data every time you use it.
Blocks tracking and fingerprinting
The Tor browser also contains a number of in-built features that will stop web pages and services from tracking you online. This all happens by default too which is great.
Tor users have the option to choose the security level that they want the browser to operate at. This means you can customise the browser to suit your needs. The three available options are:
- Standard – All standard Tor browser settings are enabled.
- Safer – The Tor browser will disable common website features that can be dangerous.
- Safest – Only allows website features required for static sites and basic services.
It is important to note that while the Safer and Safest levels offer more security, both are likely to affect the performance of at least some of the websites that you visit.
It’s quite easy to adjust the security levels on the Tor browser. All you have to do is:
- Click the hamburger icon which can be found in the top right corner of your browser.
- Select Options. This will open a new tab with the address about:preferences.
- Click on Privacy & Security from the menu on the left hand side of the new tab.
- Scroll down until you see Security Levels. Click on your preferred level.
Other tools to stay safe when using Tor
We have already talked about the benefits of using a VPN alongside the Tor browser if you are serious about staying safe when browsing the deep web with Tor. But this is not the only external tool you should be using.
The Tor browser is one of the main tools for accessing the dark web and this unregulated area of the internet can come with a lot of risks involved. Hackers are everywhere in the dark web and they don’t hesitate to try and lure in unsuspecting users with fake and malicious sites.
This is why the Tor browser offers the ‘Safest’ security level. But even this is not 100% effective.
So it is therefore a very good idea to ensure that you have a robust anti-virus tool installed on your device when using the Tor browser.
Ensure that this tool is enabled and updated with the latest malware definitions. While there are no guarantees that this will keep you safe at any cost, it certainly won’t do any harm and in the unregulated world of the dark web, any extra protection is worth having.
Is Tor illegal?
One of the questions we regularly get asked about Tor is whether it is legal to use or not.
The short and simple answer to this question is, no Tor is not illegal. It is perfectly legal to use the Tor browser to access the internet in just about every country in the world.
Only a few authoritarian regimes that don’t want their people accessing the internet in private, like China and Russia, have made using Tor illegal.
A lot of people use Tor to access the dark web so it is probably worth stressing that accessing the dark web is also not illegal in itself. Dark web browsing is perfectly legal in almost every country (with the same few exceptions).
However, as we have noted, the dark web is not regulated and there are plenty of illegal activities, content, and hidden services that take place there.
You can buy most things on the dark web from weapons, to hitmen and from child porn to drugs. However, even though you are hidden and your online privacy is protected, illegal activity is still very much illegal. No amount of online privacy can change that.
Obviously much of this stuff is not legal. If you are using Tor and the dark web for any of these things, you are doing something illegal and that is not permitted by law just about anywhere. If you are caught, there will certainly be quite serious legal consequences for you.
But as long as you use your common sense and only use Tor to access legal content, there is absolutely nothing legally for you to worry about.
To make changes to your security level, simply do the following:
- Click on the hamburger icon in the top right corner of your browser.
- Choose “Options” A new tab should open with the address “about:preferences”.
- From the menu on the left, pick “Privacy & Security”.
- Scroll down until you find “Security Levels”.
- Alter them to your desired level.
Is Tor safe is the question that we set out to answer in this guide. The short answer is Yes; the Tor browser is rated as one of the safest browsers around to use, but Tor in general is regarded as safe to use.
But, as we have seen, it is not quite as simple as that. There have been security issues with the Tor browser and question marks over the Tor service. There is reason to believe that the National Security Agency and GCHQ might well have access to at least some of the exit nodes, which are Tor’s main area of vulnerability.
That is why it is a good idea to use Tor in conjunction with a VPN. We have explained the merits of using Tor over VPN and VPN over Tor and the differences between the two.
We have also answered a number of other common questions about Tor, including its legality, and looked at a number of other security perks and recommendations that can help you to use Tor safely.
By following all of this advice, it is perfectly possible to use Tor in a safe, private, and secure way.