If you are a privacy or security-minded sort of person, then you should be using the Tor browser. In this article, we delve into how Tor protects your privacy and how to use it.
I don’t mean to get all tin-foil hat on you here, but going online these days can be quite risky. Whether it’s thieves trying to steal your credit card number, or trolls making your life hell for kicks, it can be debatable sometimes how enjoyable the Internet can be. That’s why you should think about switching browsers and use the Tor browser instead.
Yes I know you love your Firefox or your Chrome with their amazing extensions. But how about keeping that location information away from hackers so they can’t order 500 pizzas with your credit card and have them delivered to your home address?
The Myth Versus Reality
Some people may have a narrow-minded view of Tor (Dark Web, only for criminals, etc). This is definitely not true. There are also many worthy legitimate uses.
- Journalists use it to protect their sources and themselves from government interference.
- Activists and resistance fighters use it in totalitarian countries and regions such as China, Russia, and the Middle East to criticize their government and the police, military, and the courts.
- Ordinary privacy and security-minded Internet users are now using it to make sure they are not being tracked and monitored online.
In what must be the ultimate twist in irony, Tor was originally developed by the US Navy. It therefore got a lot of its funding from the US Government, but now today the purpose of Tor has done a complete 180 degrees and is now used to protect people from the government, the very entity that funded Tor in the first place! Governments and law enforcement hate Tor now because people can pretty much do what they want online with anonymity (and in some cases, impunity).
What Is Tor?
Tor (The Onion Router) is available for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. There are also Android and iOS equivalents. It is modified from the Mozilla Firefox browser, and acts like a virtual private network. In other words, you can use Tor to have your location and browsing history completely concealed.
Here is where Tor is much different from your standard vanilla Internet browser. Tor traffic first gets re-routed through several public Tor servers, each one not knowing where the next server will be. This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to intercept the traffic.
As Tor servers become known to ISPs (Internet Service Providers) around the world, it becomes easier to block them. It’s in an ISP’s best business interest for you not to use Tor as they make money selling your user information. Tor is therefore bad for business.
Therefore, to put a spanner in the works of any ISP out to hunt Tor users, your Tor browser can instead be redirected to a ‘relay’ somewhere in the world (also known as a ‘node’ or a ‘bridge’). These are routers run by volunteers who allow people to run their Tor traffic through their bandwidth. These relays are not publicly registered so they are much harder to trace. The Tor traffic also ends up looking like regular Internet traffic.
Downsides Of The Tor Browser
- Your browsing speed is MUCH slower than normal, as your web traffic has to go through a few extra servers before it hits your destination. So you are trading speed for privacy and security. What is more important to you?
- Plugins such as Flash, RealPlayer, and Quicktime are blocked, as they are considered to be unsafe. In fact, the Electronic Frontier Foundation discourages you from using ANY Firefox plugin on Tor. That being said, the EFF’s plugin for ensuring secure connections is installed by default.
- Some websites outright reject Tor traffic. One example is Project Gutenberg, which returns this error message.
Starting Up Tor
Have I convinced you to walk on the wild side and try Tor out? Good choice! You can download the Tor browser for free. Install it like you would with any other program, and start it up. You will first see this.
99% of the time, you can just choose the first option. So click the “connect” button. Unless you are on the run from Chinese state security, in which case you will have to choose option 2 and do some configuring.
Then you’re ready for business.
As I previously mentioned, some websites will block Tor. This StackExchange page details problematic websites on Tor such as Wikipedia, Vimeo, Github, and Cloudflare. But obviously, sites will work and not work all the time. So a constantly accurate list is not even remotely possible.
Even Google sometimes hiccups when you search for something, getting you to complete a CAPTCHA to prove you’re human.
It just goes to prove that Tor is not perfect by any means. But it is better than not having it at all.
As well as versions for Windows and MacOS, there are other versions of the Tor browser you should seriously consider.
Windows Portable Version
If installing programs is not your thing, you can instead have a portable version for Windows, which can be run off a USB stick.
You can also download it from Portable Apps, which is usually a very trustworthy site. However, to be on the safe side, I would recommend only downloading it from the Tor Project website. That way, you know you’re getting the real thing.
The best option for both the iPhone and iPad is the Onion Browser. This is a truly fantastic browser and I use it all the time. It is also free and open-source. Cookies, cache, and Internet history can be wiped with a click.
I have had absolutely no issues with the Onion Browser at all, and strongly recommend it to all iOS users.
Both are free and highly regarded, but the one I hear the most about (and gets the most praise) is Orbot. It is clear at first glance that Orbot is the dominant successful one of the two. It has private chat messaging, works with the official Twitter app, and any app can be re-routed through Orbot if that app has a proxy feature.
I hope this article has given you a good understanding of the Tor browser, and that it has encouraged you to give it a try. Privacy and security should never be neglected or under-rated.