Everything you need to know about using Tor Browser
As smartphones and IoT devices are more geared to gathering users’ personal information, and governments are more interested in knowing everything about what we do on the Internet, it is becoming even more difficult to remain private. Therefore, Internet users often look for ways to keep their communications and sensitive data safe from prying eyes. If you are one of them, chances are you have already heard about the Tor anonymity network.
However, despite offering anonymous browsing opportunity to privacy-concerned users, Tor still has a somewhat shady reputation. In this comprehensive guide, we will try to shed some light on how the Tor network operates and how you can access it with or without a VPN.
First things first: what is Tor?
Tor (the Onion Router) is a free service that helps Internet users to enhance their privacy and security while browsing online. It refers both to the anonymous network of volunteer-operated servers and the web browser that allows you securely access that network.
Tor was originally called the Onion Router because of the technique it uses to conceal user’s information. It allows for Internet users to have their communications relayed across various nodes in separate locations, making it difficult for snoopers to determine where the original traffic comes from.
Who uses Tor and why?
By routing your traffic through random nodes, Tor allows you hide your identity from prying eyes and browse the Internet securely. If you choose the Tor Browser to access websites and online services, nobody will be able to monitor your online behavior. The only thing visible to anyone who tries to snoop on your browsing activities will be the fact that you are connected to the Tor network.
What is more, with the Tor Browser you can access social media, news sites and other websites or services that may be blocked in your country. This is why people choose Tor for different reasons. It all depends on who you are and what you are looking for online:
Privacy-minded Internet users:
- hiding their identity from advertisers and other snoopers;
- protecting themselves from identity theft and other cybercrimes;
- accessing websites and services blocked by their ISPs (Internet Service Providers);
Whistleblowers and activists:
- reporting from abroad on bad labor practices;
- safeguarding their privacy and security;
- sharing sensitive information among themselves.
Journalists and bloggers:
- bypassing censorship and accessing blocked websites;
- protecting confidential communications with their sources.
Tor as a gateway into the Deep Web
While the Tor Browser is good for private browsing, it also acts as a gateway to the Dark Web – a small part of the Deep Web, also known as “the underground Internet.”
Although the Dark Web is often associated with shady deals and illegal activities, it is also used by journalists and whistleblowers to securely share sensitive information. Note that websites on the Dark Web end with “.onion”, indicating they are only accessible to Tor users. As these websites do not have a domain name like in the regular network, finding them can be a little bit tricky. Therefore, there are a number of specialized search engines, e.g., NotEvil, Onion.link, Onion.to, that will help you easily find what you are looking for.
How does Tor work?
The main purpose of Tor is to allow Internet users surf the web anonymously by hiding their online identity. It does so by encrypting users’ Internet traffic and bouncing it through different relays in various locations worldwide, rather than making one direct connection.
So when you use the Tor Browser to access any website, your traffic will enter the Onion network by taking one of the many random relays from around the world instead of traveling directly to the desired destination. From there, it will make at least one more hop and only then leave through a random exit node to its final destination (the website).
As you can see, these individually operated relays (also called nodes or routers) are crucial elements of the Tor network because all the traffic passes through them. The more relays are running, the faster and safer the Tor network becomes.
How to get and use the Tor Browser?
To get started, simply visit the Tor Project website, download and install the Tor Browser, which is available for macOS, Windows and Linux. If the Tor Project site is blocked in your country, you can download a Tor Browser mirror from GitHub. Once the installation process is finished, open the browser and enjoy your privacy on the Internet. As the Tor Browser is built on the same code as Firefox, you shouldn’t have trouble using it.
To make sure that Tor is working and your communications are protected, go to the Tor Check site.
Does Tor make you completely safe and anonymous?
Unfortunately, not. While using the Tor Browser helps you avoid traffic analysis, it can’t protect you against end-to-end attacks. This is because your traffic is encrypted only when traveling to and within the Tor network, meaning it is no longer protected once it passes through an exit node. At this point between the exit node and the final destination on the web, there is always a chance for a cyber attack.
Another problem with Tor is that your ISP (Internet Service Provider) can still see the traffic coming out of your device, meaning that they know you are using the Tor network, which is illegal and thus restricted in many authoritarian countries.
What is more, anyone can run a Tor relay, which is what makes Tor both safe and vulnerable at the same time. In theory, any government organization can set up and run thousands of relays to monitor citizens’ behavior and communications online. This is even more alarming if you are a journalist with sensitive information or a human rights activist living in a heavily-censored country.
How can you improve your security when using the Onion network?
Although the Tor Browser is already pre-configured to protect your privacy online, there is a list of rules you should follow in order for the browser to work properly. Make sure you follow these :
- Use only the “https” versions of websites, so that your traffic stays protected even when it leaves the Tor network;
- Don’t use P2P services as they have been observed to make direct connections even when they should use Tor. Using P2P not only puts your personal data at risk but also slows down the connection speed for other users on the network;
- Disable browser plugins, such as Flash, Quicktime and RealPlayer, as they can be manipulated into showing your IP address;
- Do not open files you downloaded via the Onion network while online as they may contain links to the Internet outside Tor and be used to reveal your real IP address;
- Tor does not make you immune to malware, so always be careful what you do online and never click on suspicious links.
Looking for alternatives. Which is better: the Tor network or a VPN service?
Both the Tor network and VPN (Virtual Private Network) are designed for enhancing users’ online privacy and security. However, Tor alone is not able to encrypt your Internet traffic all the way to its final destination, posing security threats once your traffic leaves an exit node. So if you seek maximum security and privacy while browsing the web, you may like the idea of combining Tor with a reliable VPN service.
VPNs work by sending a user’s encrypted communications to a server of their choice before heading off to the destination server. The destination server assumes the traffic came from the intermediate VPN server rather than the original computer. This way your ISP will not be able to see that you are using the Onion browser. Similarly, your Internet traffic will stay encrypted even if it goes through a malicious exit node.
Want to stay safe online? Use Onion Over VPN
Onion Over VPN is an advanced security solution by NordVPN. When enabled, it firstly routes your Internet traffic through a remote VPN server and only then sends it to the Onion Router. After the traffic leaves one of the Onion Router exit nodes, it remains securely encrypted and is impossible to trace it back to you.
What is special about the Onion Over VPN feature is that it does not require to download the Tor Browser. All you need to do is open the NordVPN app, connect to one of the Onion Over VPN servers and use any browser that you like. However, if you prefer, you can still use the Tor Browser together with one of NordVPN’s regular servers. No matter which way you choose, both are equally secure and ensure reliable protection for your private data and browsing activities.
If you don’t have NordVPN yet, drop by our downloads page. NordVPN has user-friendly apps for all the main operating systems: macOS, Windows, Android and iOS. Or check out the freshly released lightweight proxy extensions for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.
Did you find these tips useful? Let us know in the comments below!