Can you ever take online privacy too far? The creators of Tor think not. What is Tor exactly and is it as safe and anonymous as it promises to be? Join us in exploring this popular dark web browser as we lift the lid on the pros and cons. It can also be used in the normal ‘surface’ web if you’re ultra-serious about wiping away your digital footprints. The security savvy will also want to consider multi-pronged digital protection that blends trusted anti-malware with a VPN, software updater and more. Avira Prime is available as a premium subscription.
Welcome to the Tor dark web browser
In German, “Tor” means “gateway”. Although the Tor browser is a gateway to the dark web, the name really stands for The Onion Router due to its many layers of eye-watering encryption. According to its website, The Tor Project, Inc is on a mission to invite the world to “Browse Privately. Explore Freely. Defend yourself against tracking and surveillance. Circumvent censorship”. (Website status: 23 March 2023).
When did it start? Let’s head back to the early days of the internet. In the 1990’s, there was already some concern about the lack of security on the World Wide Web and how it could be used as a surveillance and tracking tool. The idea of onion routing was born, whereby traffic is sent through multiple servers called “nodes” and encrypted at every step. Your IP address, location, and online activities remain hidden. The result is an anonymous browsing experience that’s probably as truly private as it can be! In fact, Tor uses an encryption technique originally developed by the US navy to help protect its intelligence communications, so it is valued highly by security experts.
Recognizing the importance of onion technology to digital rights and freedom, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) began funding work on the Tor network in 2004. Then in 2006, The Tor Project, Inc. was founded as a non-profit organization to maintain development of its free, open-source software.
Besides a web browser, Tor also has an onion network of anonymous websites and servers to protect the identity of both the web pages and their visitors. Work on this network began in 2007 to address censorship issues and the need to get around government firewalls. These websites are all distinguishable by their [dot]onion web address and are exclusively accessible via the Tor Browser. They’re not indexed and are invisible to standard search engines, so don’t even try to find .onion sites with Google!
The Tor-based browser is now the most popular means to access the dark web and the onion services have become synonymous with the dark net! That’s because Tor was there when the dark web started with The Silk Road, the first dark web marketplace where drugs and other illegal goods were sold. While it was still operational, Silk Road could only be accessed with the Tor browser.
If you want to dive into the darkest depths of the web, you’ll need to hitch a ride on the Tor browser—but should you? The onion network was designed to be a safehouse for people who want to evade censorship and conceal their identities, like political activists and journalists. Yet because it grants anonymity to both website hosts and visitors, it’s also irresistible to criminals who use the dark web as their playground.
Is the Tor dark web browser legal?
In short, yes, Tor is legal in countries where it’s not a crime to use the dark net to protect your privacy. Some countries have outlawed Tor—China has banned all anonymous browsing and Russia and Venezuela actively try to block their citizens from using Tor. Using Tor to access the dark web is not against the law in most countries, but it’s what you do when you get there that counts. If you’re hiring hitmen, buying illicit goods, or viewing abusive content, that’s illegal. Just don’t blame Tor for taking you there. The Tor Project was not founded with the dark web or criminals in mind and claims to remain devoted to human rights and the safety of its users.
There are plenty of legitimate sites on the dark web, like secure email services, research databases, news sites, and even a dark web Facebook. Yet using the Tor web browser could raise a few eyebrows—and even tarnish your reputation—because the dark web is (in)famous for its illegal content. Nobody will assume you’re there to watch kitten videos.
Ironically, although Tor is known for its privacy, using it can draw unwanted attention! Government authorities are often suspicious of Tor users and could monitor the activities of those who use a dark web browser. Some internet service providers (ISPs) contact customers about their Tor usage and even throttle internet speeds to discourage using Tor!
How anonymous is the Tor dark web browser and how does it work?
Common questions are “Is it a VPN?” and “Which offers more anonymity?”. While both Tor and VPNs encrypt (i.e.: scramble data so it can’t be read) and reroute traffic, there are key differences: A VPN encrypts data traffic and routes it through an intermediary server in another location that the user usually chooses. It’s run by a single provider. Tor also encrypts data traffic but routes it through a random sequence of servers that operate as independent “nodes”. This decentralized, onion method of routing is slower but makes it more difficult to trace online activity back to a user, so it’s considered more reliably anonymous than a VPN. Plus, unlike VPNs, Tor is run by volunteers and is strictly not-for-profit.
Anonymity never comes with a 100% guarantee though and even Tor has chinks in its armor. While the system works well for hiding an IP address, data must pass through Tor entry and exit nodes. These are public, so ISPs and other third parties can know when someone is using Tor and could intercept their communications here. Even if they can’t tell exactly what a user is doing online or decipher their identity, using Tor arouses suspicion. Who wants to raise red flags while trying to be as private as possible?
Is using Tor a good idea?
You can view “normal” websites on the surface web with Tor too. Wherever you are online and whatever your privacy needs, only you can know if Tor is the right choice for you. Let’s explore the pros and cons.
It’s entirely free and easy to download. No such thing as a free lunch? Whoever said that hadn’t heard of Tor. “Free” (in every respect) is at the heart of its ethos. It was created and is still run by volunteers and relies on donations. The code is open-source, so anyone can review it and there are no hidden financial agendas.
It’s the only doorway to onion sites. The dark web is mainly made up of the onion sites on the Tor network and can only be accessed via Tor and the Tor Browser. Most of us aren’t dissidents who need the anonymity of the dark web to practice our right to freedom of speech or information, so we don’t need to view onion sites. If you have illegal intentions… We’d rather you didn’t and therefore also didn’t download Tor.
Did you know that Tor helps keep browsing safer on the surface web too? Tor’s HTTPS-Only mode automatically switches thousands of sites from unencrypted “HTTP” to the more private “HTTPS“.
Developers at Tor are always working on ways to enhance user safety and anonymity, but ISPs and government authorities will continue to try and track down Tor users. The FBI and CIA monitor Tor and can stage virtual “raids” on people conducting illegal activities. You don’t want to end up on a watch list just because you were curious!
By contrast, standard web browsers usually hoover up user data to varying degrees and track your online activities to learn all they can about you.
What are the disadvantages of Tor?
There’s no doubt that Tor is a powerful tool for anonymous browsing, but nothing in life is perfect. Here we delve into some of the frustrations that may be experienced by those browsing the web with Tor.
Slow speeds: Using Tor might have you asking if the name comes from Tortoise. The elaborate process of onion routing (by sending encrypted data through a series of network nodes) is great for privacy, but this comes at the cost of speed.
Damage to your reputation: Tor has become synonymous with the dark web, and therefore illegality. Like it or not, government authorities and your ISP will think you’re up to no good. If you’re accidentally caught up in a police raid of dark web users, you might end up in real-world trouble.
Vulnerabilities: Although Tor is designed for anonymity, we’ve already pointed out that the onion network is vulnerable at its entry and exit nodes because internet traffic isn’t encrypted here. Your data could be intercepted, and your IP address exposed.
How to use Tor
Tor used to require some serious technical know-how to install but thanks to the Tor Project, this has got much easier.
- Download and install the Tor browser . The Tor browser app can be found on the Tor Project download page. (Available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android). When Tor has finished installing, click “Finish” to launch the browser.
- Click “Connect” in the configuration window. (Only click “Configure” if you’re using a proxy server). Then you’ll wait for the browser to connect to the node network. It can take several minutes for Tor to establish the first connection.
- Start browsing the Tor network This is easier said than done, because the web address to access a site needs to be entered. The usual search engines don’t work for the deep web, so you’ll have to find those URLs yourself or pick from one of a handful of darknet search engines, including Torch, NotEvil, Ahmia, and Candle. For a useful overview of dark web search engines, see this blog.
The Hidden Wiki is also a good place to start as it contains a list of current dark web URLs. Always be alert as the dark web is teeming with unsafe and illicit content! Before you hurl yourself into its murky depths, read on for our online safety tips.
Our top tips: How to access the dark web more safely with Tor
For more security, use Tor with a VPN. This extra encryption offers an additional privacy shield. A VPN also hides your IP if the Tor network entry node is compromised. It comes included with Avira Prime, a cross-device premium subscription service for greater online privacy, protection, and device performance.
Wherever you’re headed on the web, don’t go without reliable online protection. This includes a reputable antivirus, a working firewall, and an updated operating system with the latest security features. Avira Prime blends antivirus, automatic software updates, tools for more secure browsing, and more into a single premium subscription that works across your devices. If you’re on a budget, there are plenty of freemium online safety solutions to choose from, such as Avira Free Antivirus and Avira Free Security.
Of course, always follow the usual recommendations for safer online behavior, like never downloading files or clicking on links from untrusted sources.
To sum up: We live in a digital world where there will always be someone or something waiting to track our every move online or steal our data. Browsers play a valuable role in our online security and Tor is designed for optimal privacy. It’s completely free but comes at the cost of slower speeds and other restrictions. And despite its noble intentions, it lives in the shadow of the darknet. If you do choose to use Tor, double up on your security and stay safe out there.