What is Tor?
Tor, short for The Onion Router project, is an open-source network for browsing the web with more privacy. The Tor network protects your online traffic with layers of encryption resembling layers of an onion. It routes your web traffic through a series of nodes (relays and servers) which hide your real IP address, online data, and browsing activity from internet service providers and snoopers, while Tor’s browser provides access to websites and services that are only accessible within the Tor network and have addresses ending in “.onion.”
In the mid-1900s, the US government created Tor to protect sensitive government communications over the internet. The US navy developed Tor’s original code and eventually released it to the public under a free and open-source license. Since 2006, volunteers in The Tor Project nonprofit have been maintaining the Tor network and browser, making it available to all internet users.
What is the Tor browser?
The Tor browser (or the onion browser) is a web browser designed to access the Tor network. It enhances your online privacy by encrypting your web traffic and routing it through the network’s layered nodes, which is known as the onion routing technique. You can only access Tor — the websites and services hosted within the Tor network — through the Tor browser. This browser keeps your internet activity private by concealing it from your internet service provider. However, since volunteers operate the nodes in the network, the safety of using Tor depends on the good will of each person.
How does Tor work?
Tor uses the onion routing technique to encrypt and route your communications through the Tor network. First, onion routing secures your data with multiple layers of encryption, then transmits it through a series of nodes, called onion routers. Each node removes a layer of encryption until the data reaches its destination, fully decrypted.
The Tor network and browser collaborate to route your internet traffic through the three layers of nodes that play the role of Tor servers or routers, making it difficult to track your online activities:
- The entry node. When you initiate a connection on the Tor network, the Tor browser randomly selects an entry node (also known as the “guard” node). This first node encrypts your data and introduces it into the Tor circuit.
- The relay nodes. Your data passes through a series of middle nodes, called relay nodes. The first relay node establishes the encryption key of the following relay node. Each relay node only knows the encryption key of the previous and the following nodes in the circuit and do not have access to the complete path of your internet traffic. As your data passes through the nodes, each node decrypts a layer of encryption and forwards the data along until it reaches the exit node.
- The exit node. The Tor exit node removes the final layer of encryption. Then the data leaves the Tor network via the exit node and travels to its final destination.
What is the Tor browser used for?
The Tor browser is mainly used for web browsing with increased privacy and security. Tor users fall into these categories:
- Government and military agencies that need to shield sensitive information.
- Law enforcement agencies, especially the police, when they work undercover or investigate suspicious websites and services.
- Activists, whistleblowers, and journalists who want to protect their identities from oppressive regimes and adversaries or overcome strict censorship.
- Private individuals who seek to protect their personal information and browsing habits from websites, ISPs, and snoopers.
- Illicit organizations and individuals who want to avoid having their activities being tracked back to them.
The Tor browser is also a tool for connecting to the deep web, including its most hidden part — the dark web. Even though visiting the dark web is legal in most countries, we discourage you from doing so because it is a dangerous part of the deep web where you could get scammed or your device infected with malware.
How to use the Tor browser
If you have decided to become a Tor user to increase your online privacy, you can follow these steps on how to download Tor, install it, and start using it safely:
- Download and install the Tor browser. Go to the official Tor Project website and download the appropriate installation file for your operating system. On Windows, follow the on-screen steps to install Tor. On macOS, copy the installation package to the Applications folder. When the download of the Tor browser is complete, double-click the installer file to run it (“.exe” extension for Windows and “.dmg” for macOS).
- Run the Tor web browser and establish a connection. To establish a connection, start the Tor browser. The “Connect to Tor” window will appear. Click “Connect.” It might take some time for the Tor browser to connect to the network — a progress bar will appear. If the Tor web browser does not connect to the network, click on the “Configure connection” button and adjust proxy settings.
- Select a security layer. By default, the Tor browser comes with the “Standard” security level, which is already safer than most traditional browsers. However, you can increase the security level. Click the shield icon next to the Tor browser URL, then click on the “Settings” button in the shield menu. In the “Privacy & security” section, choose the relevant security level — either “Safer” or “Safest.”
- Choose a search engine. To maximize your security, we recommend you stop using default search engines like Google or Bing and opt for a private search engine instead of a default engine, such as DuckDuckGo or Disconnect.me.
- Create a new ID. To increase your online privacy, click the menu button (the three horizontal lines) in the upper-right corner, next to the browser URL, and select “New identity.” This will close all your open tabs and windows, clear your cookies and web browsing history, and use new Tor circuits for all connections. But remember that this will also stop all activity and downloads.
- Browse safely. Even though the Tor browser notifies you if you are about to visit a dangerous or suspicious website, you should still avoid visiting websites that use the less secure HTTP protocol (as opposed to HTTPS, which encrypts your communication).
- Visit .onion sites with caution. The Tor browser is the primary tool for accessing onion domain websites. These websites are specifically designed to be used within the Tor network and are inaccessible with regular browsers.
- Exit the Tor browser. When you’re done browsing, close all open Tor browser’s tabs. To completely exit the Tor browser, click on the menu button and select “Exit.”
Drawbacks of the Tor network
Even though Tor increases your online privacy, it has several disadvantages worth considering before you download its browser:
- Slow speeds. Tor uses layers of encryption, which slows down your connection speed more than other browsers.
- Blocking. Some network administrators and websites might keep track of web traffic coming from Tor exit nodes and block Tor.
- Lack of accountability. The voluntary and decentralized nature of the Tor network means there is a lack of accountability or oversight of the exit node operation.
- Suspicious internet service providers. The Tor browser is not available for all operating systems.
- Availability. Your ISP might detect that you’re using the Tor browser and become suspicious because of Tor’s bad reputation for being the dark web browser. Your ISP might take note of you using this network.
- Dangerous content. The .onion sites may contain dangerous content, such as malware, disturbing images or videos, and information on illegal services.
- Fake browser apps. Multiple fake Tor browser apps are available online, so make sure to download the official one from the legitimate Tor Project website.
Can you use Tor and a VPN together?
Both Tor and a VPN increase your online privacy but they do so in different ways. To stop confusing one with the other, let’s look at Tor vs. VPN:
|Encrypts and directs your web traffic through several layers of independent nodes||Encrypts your traffic and sends it through a VPN server|
|Lack of accountability||Transparency|
|Might slow down your internet connection||Does not perceptibly slow down your internet connection|
|One service for increased privacy||Additional online protection features|
Both Tor and a VPN increase your online security, so it might seem like a good idea to use them together. However, we do not advise it because using these services together might further slow down your connection speed.
Instead, you can use NordVPN’s Onion over VPN feature to maximize your online privacy. Our Onion over VPN servers will hide your IP address from the entry node, protecting your identity from anyone who might be monitoring parts of the Onion network.
Is Tor illegal?
Tor is legal in most countries, including the US. However, China and Russia have banned Tor. Internet users should check if Tor is allowed in their country before downloading it.
Using Tor is completely legal if you only browse safe content and do not partake in illegal activities accessible on the dark web.
Is Tor as safe as a VPN?
Tor and VPNs are both safe but for different reasons. A reliable VPN service provides maximum privacy for your online traffic by encrypting it and hiding your IP address. Tor also increases your online privacy by directing your traffic through layers of random nodes, making it nearly impossible to trace the connection back to you.
Can anyone see you on Tor?
No one can see your browsing activity or the encrypted data when you’re using Tor unless the exit node is set up by malicious actors for tracking Tor users’ activity. However, your internet service provider can detect the fact that you’re using Tor.
Your data can also be tracked if you are accessing, logging in to an account, or providing your data on a website that isn’t properly secured.