Is it possible to browse the web anonymously? Have you ever wished that you could go to a website or access information without anyone looking over your shoulder. Would you like to get around censorship or state sponsored blocking? Do you live under an oppressive government that restricts information and would like to safely access the knowledge that you are being denied? You can do all of this with Tor.
What Is Tor Browser?
The Tor Browser comes from the nonprofit Tor Project. It’s goal is research and development in privacy and anonymity. The Tor browser anonymizes your activity on the web by sending it through the Tor network (also called the Onion Network). Tor is actually short for The Onion Router. It is basically a multi layered proxy. It routes your traffic through multiple nodes. Here is how it works:
- The Entry node. This is the first server that you send your request to. It has no idea what the final destination of your request is. It only knows the next node to send it to. The entry node encrypts your traffic and sends it to the next node.
- At least one randomly selected middle node. This one doesn’t know where your request originated or where it’s final destination will be. It only knows the node directly in front of and behind it. It adds a layer of encryption and sends it to the exit node.
- An exit node. The exit node has no idea where your request originated. It only knows the node just before it and the final destination. It adds a layer of encryption and sends your request to the website that you are visiting.
Each node encrypts your data and knows nothing but what is right in front of and behind it. If someone from the outside tries to look in and spy on your data the only thing they will see is that you are using Tor.
Why use Tor?
- To keep your ISP or the government from spying on what websites you visit.
- To anonymously research your competition.
- To get around censorship.
- To communicate anonymously if you live under an oppressive regime.
- To more safely communicate and share information if you are a journalist or dissident.
- To more safely expose something if you are a whistleblower.
The government uses Tor to send secure communications, corporations use it to protect sensitive information from eavesdroppers, and individuals use it to keep others from tracking them. Tor is a very simple to use and powerful anonymizing tool. If you live under a government that does not allow you to use Tor you can use bridges to access the network. I will show you how to do that in the tips section below.
How to Get Tor
Now lets look at how to get Tor. I’ll show you how to get it on Windows, Ubuntu Linux, and Android. If you have a Linux distribution other than Ubuntu you will be able to find instructions for your distribution on Google, YouTube, or your favorite search engine. After we do that I’ll go over some tips on using it safely, talk about security levels, tell you how to hide yourself with Tor over VPN, and explain a little about what the Dark Web really is.
Get Tor on Your Windows PC
Make sure there is a checkmark beside “Run Tor Browser” and then click “Finish”.
Get Tor on Your Linux PC
Open a terminal.
Enable using HTTPS in sources. Type (without the quotes) “
sudo apt install apt-transport-https“ and then hit the Enter key. Enter your password when asked.
Add the Tor repository. Type (without quotes) “
sudo sh -c 'echo "deb [arch=amd64] https://deb.torproject.org/torproject.org $(lsb_release -sc) main" >> /etc/apt/sources.list.d/tor-project.list'“ and then hit the Enter key. Enter your password when asked.
Go to the Tor keyring page and down the most recent .deb package.
Install the keyring you just downloaded. Type (without the quotes) “
sudo apt install ./Downloads/deb.torproject.org-keyring*.deb” and then hit the Enter key. Enter your password when asked.
Refresh the package cache. Type (without the quotes) “
sudo apt update” and then hit the Enter key. Enter your password when asked.
Install Tor. Type “
sudo apt install tor” and then hit the Enter key. Enter your password when asked.
Install the Tor Browser. Type “
sudo apt install torbrowser-launcher” and then hit the Enter key. Enter your password when asked.
Search for Tor in the application launcher and open Tor Browser Launcher.
Click “Install Tor”.
Get Tor on Your Android Device
Open Google play and search for the word Tor.
Install the Tor Browser from The Tor Project.
Select your security level. Standard should be good for most users. You can always change this setting later. Tap “Start browsing”.
Here are some tips so you can use Tor more safely. The true power of tor is in the onion network. It is made up of websites that end in .onion. Onion sites are where you find real anonymity. That said, there are some things that you can do to help ensure that you are as anonymous as possible.
- Links that end with .onion can only be opened with Tor Browser.
- Only download Tor from it’s official website located here. For the mobile version make sure you go to the official Google or Apple app store.
- Tor is slower than browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Edge. The reason is because everything is passed through multiple nodes and encrypted. This is necessary to achieve anonymity.
- Some web services block access to Tor.
- If you live under a government that doesn’t allow the use of Tor, open the Tor browser, open the 3 line menu in the upper right corner, click “Options”, click “Tor”, put a checkmark beside “Select a bridge”, and in the dropdown choose obfs4. It will try to make your Tor traffic look like normal web traffic.
- Keep Tor up to date. The more up to date Tor is the more security fixes are installed. That means if you keep Tor updated it will be able to do a better job of keeping you anonymous.
- Remember that if you go to a non https website the Tor exit node will be able to see your data.
- Keep in mind that any information that you post on websites that is self-identifying could potentially be traced back to you. Long story short be careful with your personal information.
- If you sign up for an account on a website with your real information while using Tor, whoever owns the site will see the details that you shared.
- Tor blocks certain browser plugins like Flash, QuickTime, and others in order to preserve your anonymity.
- It is best not to install browser addons because they can bypass Tor’s protection and decrease your anonymity.
- Remember if you download things like documents and PDFs that the default application that you use to view them can download internet resources that could reveal your IP address. If you need to view a PDF while using Tor it is best to use Tor’s built in PDF viewer. If you absolutely have to download documents in Tor at least do so via Tor over VPN which will be explained in a moment.
- Keep in mind that if you download some kind of file while using Tor and the file is infected with malware your anonymity will be impacted.
- Remember that privacy and security aren’t the same thing. Tor provides privacy through anonymity and encryption. If you want to be secure all of the common rules apply: system and application updates, antivirus, good passwords, two factor authentication, being careful of what you click on and download, and being careful who you trust.
- Avoid maximizing the Tor window as that can expose some device information such as resolution and screen size. That may not seem like a big deal, and maybe it’s not, but it is still identifying information that can make you stand out in a crowd.
- When doing a web search consider using DuckDuckGo to avoid Google’s less than stellar privacy practices.
- It is best to avoid illegal websites. That includes sites that contain sexual criminal activity, illegal markets, and other sites that promote criminal activities. The users of such sites can be untrustworthy and dangerous and the authorities work hard to monitor these kind of sites.
- It is best to opt for the Onion version of websites whenever possible. You can find link lists of Onion or Dark Web links online. Just make sure you don’t open random links blindly or open links to illegal websites.
- If you want to use an email account on Tor, especially if you are accessing the Dark Web, make sure it is encrypted and that you didn’t use any of your true details to sign up for it. The best option is a provider that has an onion site. Protonmail is an excellent choice and you can access their onion site here. Their regular site can be found here.
- It is best to use cryptocurrency to make purchases because it is far more anonymous.
A Note about Security Levels
Tor has three security levels available:
- Standard – All browser and website features are enabled.
The higher the security level the more your anonymity is protected. At the same time the higher the security level the more website features won’t work anymore. For normal browsing Standard should be good enough for most of you unless you are going to dangerous websites or have some other urgent need for extra anonymity. As you need more protection increase the security level.
Tor over VPN
When you use Tor you connect to an entry node, which connects to at least one middle node, which connects to an exit node, which then connects to the website that you want to access. Here are some questions to consider:
- What if the entry or exit node is compromised?
- What if you accidentally do something to expose your real IP address?
- What if another application outside of Tor exposes your real IP address?
- What if your ISP discourages the use of Tor through throttling your internet speed or worse?
- What if your government frowns upon the use of Tor and would punish you in some way for using it?
One solution to these concerns is Tor over VPN. All that this means is that you connect to your VPN first and then you connect to Tor. When you do this the VPN immediately encrypts your internet traffic and hides your true physical location. All anyone from the outside can see is that you are connected to a VPN. All the Tor entry node knows is the IP address that your VPN gives it. All that the VPN can see is that you are using Tor. If for some reason your IP is exposed when running Tor over VPN it won’t be your real IP address. This is the safest approach to using Tor.
Tor Over VPN does four important things for you:
- It prevents your IPS from knowing that you are using Tor.
- It keeps you anonymous to the entry and exit nodes.
- It adds an extra layer of encryption.
- It protects all of your traffic, not just that of your browser.
Make sure you choose a trustworthy VPN that doesn’t keep logs. I highly recommend that you read, Why You Need a VPN and What It Will Do for You, so you will understand what a VPN is and how to pick a good one.
A Quick Word about the Dark Web
Let’s get this one over with. There has been a lot of hype out there about a creepy corner of the internet called the Dark Web. Let’s take a look at what it really is. Is it a place where disturbing and terrible things are? Yes. Is it a place with legitimate websites and information? Yes. The same things are true about the regular web.
To simplify we can divide the web into three zones.
- The Clear Web – This is the web we all know and use every day. It is where we google things, tweet, post to Facebook, and read blogs like this one.
- The Deep Web – This is the web that isn’t indexed by search engines and all the information on it is locked away. Here you find databases, banking information, emails, etc.
- The Dark Web – This is the area that isn’t indexed by search engines but is accessible by programs like Tor. Websites end with .onion instead of things like .com and .org. It is anonymous by nature. It’s anonymity is what attracts both the good and the bad.
Reasons to Use the Dark Web
- So a private citizen or even a journalist can access and share information privately if they are under an oppressive regime.
- So a whistleblower can share information without fear of reprisal.
- To use the web while hiding from a cyberstalker.
- Some schools use it to access online databases.
- Malicious hackers and other cybercriminals can use it to anonymously operate online. Remember to trust no one that you meet on the Dark Web.
- Black markets where anything and everything is for sale use it to operate secretly.
- Those who trade in stolen information use it to do their business anonymously.
To stay safe on the Dark Web follow the tips on using Tor that I gave above. I’ll add to those tips and repeat again to never trust other users on the Dark Web.
Do you really need to use Tor? It depends. If all you are doing is scrolling Facebook, looking at memes, checking email, or playing online games then Tor will just slow you down. On the other hand if for some reason anonymity is important to you Tor is the most important tool at your disposal. Tor is the most anonymous browser available at this time. Though it is isn’t necessarily perfect and bulletproof it is as close to anonymous as you can get and it is very good at what it does. If you use the information presented above and use common sense you will fly under the radar of the snoops out there. And thanks to the continued research and development constantly going on Tor keeps getting better and better. And your right to privacy? Edward Snowden Said it best:
“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”