If you want to keep your online activities to yourself, Tor is a great choice for your privacy toolkit.
Tor is a custom browser with clever open-source technology that uses some really smart tricks to protect your web anonymity.
It accesses both regular websites and the dark web, a hidden area of the Internet that you won’t find indexed on Google. Oh, and it’s also free, requires no registration, no data limits, no ads and no constant demands to upgrade to a paid product.
Is Tor the Right Web Anonymity Tool? Not at all, but it can work great in some situations. In this article we’ll explain how Tor works, when to use it, and how you can combine Tor with a VPN to get the best possible security.
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How does Tor work?
Tor is an open-source package based on a principle called Onion Routing.
This involves encrypting your data multiple times, then passing it through a network of volunteer operated servers (or ‘relays’) from around the world.
The first (or ‘guard’) relay receives your data and removes the first layer of encryption, such as the onion layer. In fact, Tor stands for ‘The Onion Router’, and takes its name from this layering idea.
Guard Relay knows your IP address but has no other clues to your identity. It can’t see what site you’re trying to access, so there’s no way to log what you’re doing. Its only information is the address of the next relay.
Subsequent relays do not have your IP address or know which site you are trying to visit. They only remove one layer of encryption and pass the data to the next relay.
When your data reaches the final relay, also called the exit node, it removes the last layer of encryption and routes your web request to its actual destination.
Your target website sees the IP address of the Tor exit node instead of yours, so you have little idea who you are. It sends its response back to the exit node, which passes it through the Tor network and back to you.
Is Tor a VPN?
Tor uses the same basic principle as a VPN service: it hides your IP address from websites by routing your traffic through another server. But there are many differences in how the process works.
For example, while VPNs typically use a single server, Tor routes your data through at least three.
VPNs have a layer of encryption that protects you from end-to-end; Tor uses several layers, but these peel off as you travel from server to server.
And VPNs require you to log into a server, which then looks at every website you visit (and could theoretically log that data). Tor separates knowledge of who you are (your incoming IP address) and the website you are visiting, making it more difficult to record your activities.
How can I use Tor?
Despite Tor’s powerful technology and many privacy-protecting features, it’s very easy to use.
Visit the official Tor website and download the correct version of Tor for your platform. There is no iOS version, but the site has downloads for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android.
Running the installer sets up your device with the Tor browser, which is a special version of Firefox. It includes the extra software needed to make Tor work, and bundles excellent NoScript and HTTPS Everywhere extensions for even more security.
Launch Tor Browser and it asks if you want to connect to Tor. Click Connect, the Tor browser connects to a Tor Guard relay, and that’s it, you can do ongoing searches, browse through websites and just use the web as normal. The only difference is that your traffic is now routed through the Tor network instead of your regular connection.
(Be aware, unlike a VPN, the Tor browser only protects its own traffic. Other apps and your system still use your standard Internet connection.)
How Can I Use Tor to Browse the Dark Web?
Tor Browser just doesn’t support accessing regular websites. It also allows you to browse .onion sites, which are part of the hidden area of the Internet often referred to as the dark web. There’s no extra work involved, you just type the site’s URL into the address bar.
The dark web is often associated with sites selling guns, drugs, stolen data and all kinds of sinister content, but although there is some truth to it, it is only a small part of the story.
For example, .onion sites are not only used by people wanting to hide something. They are also a way to bypass censorship, perhaps to get around country-level website blocks. Facebook has an .onion site at https://www.facebookwkhpilnemxj7asaniu7vnjjbiltxjqhye3mhbshg7kx5tfyd.onion, for example, the BBC uses https://www.bbcnewsv2vjtpsuy.onion, and the DuckDuckGo search engine is at https://p6kum. . These .onion links will not work unless you are using Tor).
Finding .onion sites isn’t always easy, but there are plenty of resources that can help. The Hidden Wiki is a massive .onion site directory, DuckDuckGo’s engine indexes the .onion site, and Reddit has tons of chat and recommendations about the latest .onion searches.
What are the disadvantages of Tor?
Encrypting your traffic and routing it through multiple servers does a lot to protect your privacy, but it comes with a price. It really, really, really slows you down.
how slow? We ran the speed test on a mobile device connected via Wi-Fi. It managed downloads of 50 Mbps using our regular connection and 2 Mbps with Tor. Like we said… slow.
There is also another potential problem. Many hackers abuse Tor to protect their identities when they launch attacks. Platforms understand this very well, and many display warnings or block access altogether if they detect that you are using Tor.
For example, PayPal gave us some additional security checks and still blocked our login attempts. Amazon let us in, but only after approving a notification sent to our mobiles. And Google completely blocked us from YouTube because ‘our system detected unusual traffic from your computer network’, she complained. Tor probably won’t be a good choice for your regular browsing.
Is Tor really secure?
The big anonymity advantage of Tor is that it is decentralized. The Tor network isn’t run by a single company that gets to see every connection and data path: the relays are run by thousands of volunteers around the world. There is no single point that anyone can use to view your logins, record your traffic, or otherwise monitor what you are doing online.
However, your own network can see that you are using Tor, which can be a problem in a country that doesn’t like web privacy. And although the first Tor Relay doesn’t require any logon credentials, you have little knowledge of the size of your IP address.
There’s also a potential vulnerability in the Tor exit node, the server that removes the last layer of encryption and gets to see the URL you’re trying to visit. If you are using an unencrypted HTTP rather than an HTTPS connection, Node may be able to log sensitive information about your activities.
Exit nodes can also use an exploit called SSL stripping to access unencrypted HTTP communications to an encrypted site, according to you. In August 2020, security researcher Nusenu unveiled research that suggested that up to 23% of all Tor exit nodes were involved in a malicious campaign targeting access to cryptocurrency sites, diverting traffic, and sending transactions to their own virtual wallet. I was in the process of redirecting.
What is the safest way to use Tor?
Tor goes a long way in maintaining your web privacy, but it does have some problems. If you are looking for maximum security, the best approach is to pair Tor with a VPN.
The easiest way is to connect to your VPN, then Tor (a technology called ‘Onion over VPN’.) Now your home network only sees your VPN IP, so it doesn’t know you’re using Tor. The first Tor Relay only looks at your VPN IP address, it does not provide any information about who you are. And your VPN can’t see what sites you’re browsing because they are handled by Tor, so even if the servers are breached by hackers, there’s no way to access your browsing history.
Tor over VPN cannot protect you from malicious exit nodes, which is why some users prefer to connect to Tor first, then VPN (‘VPN over Onion’.) But it allows the VPN to reroute your traffic. Gives you some privacy. Overall benefit.
You can use Tor with most VPNs, but some have better support than others.
For example, ExpressVPN has its .onion site at http://expressobutiolem.onion, which makes it easy to use the service in countries where it’s blocked (It also has a great Tor guide.)
And NordVPN has built-in Onion over VPN support, so you don’t even need the Tor browser. Simply choose VPN over VPN in the NordVPN app and it connects you to the Tor network: web privacy doesn’t get much easier than this.
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