There’s no bigger myth than the one your phone or browser wants you to believe: if you enable all of their security protections, you become anonymous online. But this is hardly the case. On the Internet, someone, somewhere is always watching your every move. These could be millions of trackers tracking your web activity, advertisers tracking the trail of cookies you leave behind, services like Facebook accumulating your data to create records about you, your services that take a look at your traffic – the list is endless.
Although it has become increasingly complex to stay private on the Internet, at the same time, privacy has never mattered more, as states and malicious agencies weaponize online data for surveillance and threat. There is no panacea for these dangers, and it is almost impossible to be anonymous. However, a tool called Tor might just be your best bet.
Short for The Onion Router, Tor is open source software that bends over backwards to conceal your identity. How does it work, and more importantly, how can you take advantage of it to stay anonymous online?
What is Tor and how does it work?
Tor relies on a decades-old principle developed by the US Navy’s research laboratory to secure the nation’s intelligence communications from prying eyes. Its backbone is a network of thousands of volunteer computers spread around the world called relays, which add multiple layers of encryption to your traffic. — huddled like an onion, hence the name — so no one can trace it back to you.
Typically, when you launch the internet, you effectively connect to the server where the website or application you are browsing is located. If someone intercepts your connection, they can easily find out who you are, where you’re from, what content you’re requesting, and more. Tor seeks to conceal this connection by introducing a few detours between you and your destination.
When you browse the web with Tor enabled, your computer does not connect directly to the server. Instead, it bounces around your request through at least three randomly chosen relays before delivering to your destination, and it does the same on the way back to you.
Each relay encrypts and forwards your request to the next. More importantly, they all operate on a need-to-know basis. The first will know the origin and the address of the second node. The next one will only have information about the first and third relays. The final exit node decrypts the packet and forwards it to the destination without ever knowing who initiated the sequence in the first place.
Not only is your connection several times more secure than it usually is, but Tor eliminates the threat of man-in-the-middle attacks, as hacking just one of its links will prove futile because no relay does have a full picture.
Tor is not a magic bullet for gaining anonymity as there are a few downsides, which we’ll get to later, but it greatly reduces the risk and makes tracking your online traffic a nightmare.
How Tor Survives Censorship
Tor is particularly active in countries hit by censorship, such as, more recently, Russia, where the government tends to regularly block access to sites. For uninterrupted services in such places, platforms like Twitter and Facebook offer Tor-friendly versions of their websites.
Similar to how Tor relays your traffic through many nodes, it can work the other way around with a special web address to hide servers. Companies can provide data from their servers through the Tor mechanism so that local authorities cannot detect and ban it because the end user technically only connects to the exit relay and not to, say, Twitter .
Is Tor better than a VPN?
Tor may look like a powerhouse VPN, but there are more differences than similarities under the hood.
A VPN hides your identity by routing your traffic through a centralized channel between you and the server. In this case, you not only need to trust that an intruder can’t break through the VPN’s defenses, but also that the VPN provider itself won’t listen to what you’re doing on the web.
On the other hand, Tor depends on a decentralized network of computers spread across the globe and pushes your internet requests through multiple layers of encryption and nodes. No relay has all the information, and every time you browse the web your traffic is routed to new random locations. It’s also free, unlike some reliable VPN services, which usually have monthly fees.
VPN services have an advantage, however. You can select the region you want to browse from and unlock foreign content on streaming apps like Netflix.
Instead of choosing between a VPN and Tor, it’s best to use them together for added security, but if you have to choose, the latter is the way to go. That said, many notable VPN services also support Tor browsing.
Will Tor Slow Down Your Internet Connection?
Privacy often comes at the expense of convenience, and Tor is no different. Instead of one two-way connection, you establish more than half a dozen. Therefore, it will naturally take a second or two for your website to load on Tor. It should also be noted that Tor hosts around a million daily users but just over 6,000 relays.
Is Tor secure?
Tor is legal and you won’t have any problems downloading it, but there are a few things you should keep in mind.
Tor is often called the gateway to the dark web. Because it allows anyone to cover their tracks, it is actively used for illegal activities such as hacking.
The biggest concern with Tor in recent years has been with the exit node. Although the Tor exit node has no idea of the original sender, it is responsible for decrypting your data packet for the recipient. Therefore, it can technically read it, unlike other nodes. Due to the spike in Tor activity by malicious actors, privacy experts have warned that law enforcement and intelligence servers are now running their own exit nodes for surveillance purposes. Although the Tor network chooses the endpoint at random, anyone can sign up to be a relay and, from time to time, have the chance to serve as an exit.
However, if you’re only browsing Tor to escape the eyes of advertisers and trackers, you should be fine. For added security, you can stick to HTTPS-only sites so your data stays airtight when moving between nodes.
How to use Tor
There are several ways to take advantage of Tor. The easiest way is to download the official Tor browser, which works like any other browser with a range of additional advanced security protections. It is available for Windows, macOS, Android and Linux. Alternatively, you can use the Brave sailors incognito mode that automatically switches to Tor. On an iPhone and iPad, you can grab the open-source onion browser to browse the web using Tor.
If you are on Android, you need to install another handy app. It’s called Orbotand it encrypts all traffic leaving your phone with Tor, not just your browser activity.