Does My ISP Know When I’m Using Tor?

February 20, 2018 547 1

With so many dangers threatening your personal data and identity online today, protecting yourself with a tool such as The Onion Router (Tor) is a vital need. However, for many users, the question remains: does your ISP know when you are using Tor? Read on to find out!

The internet has simplified our lives, letting us access information and services that in the past were completely unavailable or much harder to reach. To support the current digital infrastructure, internet service providers (ISPs) create complex networks that let users connect to the web easily. However, this infrastructure comes at a cost. While ISPs give users access, they also track their activity when online, both for internal purposes as much as legal ones.

In some cases, this is not obtrusive, but simply an ISP’s need to constantly improve its infrastructure. However, to many users, this tracking is an invasion of privacy and can have harmful consequences when let run amok. The technology world, in particular, has been proactive about finding ways to solve this, creating services such as virtual private networks, which encrypt web traffic. Although initially developed in the 1990s, the growing embrace of The Onion Router (known as Tor) has upped the ante for ISPs attempting to track data. Tor reroutes user traffic through several decentralized nodes to anonymize it and help users avoid prying eyes.

Nevertheless, there have been reports that despite these benefits, ISPs can still track users’ activity and detect when they are on Tor, opening the way for consequences and punitive actions. So, what does your ISP know when you use Tor? More importantly, what can you do to avoid it?

Why Do ISPs Track Their Users’ Activity?

In today’s world, data is a key cog in the money-making machine. Information about users’ activity, favorite websites, preferences, and online habits is vital for advertisers, major companies, and others who are seeking to monetize their services and better target consumers. While this doesn’t mean that ISPs know every single click and keystroke users make, they do have a good idea of what we’re visiting, and from where.

In March 2017, the US government repealed several important privacy protections for internet users, which let ISPs collect and sell an assortment of user data. This includes:

  • Demographic data such as age, gender, geographic location and more
  • IP addresses and other identifying information
  • Records of visits to unencrypted sites (those that don’t start with HTTPS), along with domains of encrypted websites
  • How long you visit each website
  • Which device you are using

It’s important to keep in mind that this data collection isn’t illegal, though it impinges on users’ rights to privacy. However, ISPs have lobbied hard to be able to collect this data, as it means a treasure trove of revenues for marketers.

Users Turn To Tor, But Is It Fool-Proof?

As concerns about user privacy mount, new solutions have emerged to help users defend themselves from snoops and data collectors. One of the most useful tools created is Tor, which uses a decentralized network of nodes to continuously reroute user traffic and make it anonymous. Tor succeeds in making users’ activity while browsing almost completely anonymous, which is incredibly useful. However, many ISPs are aware of the general entry and exit points most users on Tor access, meaning they can find out if a user is using Tor or not. They cannot track websites visited or what you’re sending and receiving, but they are able to see how much data you are using, and where you accessed the network.

How Can You Enhance Your Tor Browsing? With A VPN!

Users who value their privacy online and want to avoid marketers, advertisers, and even authorities from having access to their online habits should always look for ways to secure their activities. Even so, it’s vital that they protect themselves in more ways than one, and combining Tor’s web browser with other security tools can be very advantageous.

When combined with software like a virtual private network (or VPN), Tor can enhance users’ anonymity by adding a layer of encryption that doubles their privacy. There are several ways to do this, and they all offer different benefits. So, the question is, how can you use Tor without your ISP knowing?


The first option is to connect to your VPN, and then route your traffic to the internet through Tor, encrypting your data before it gets rerouted. This adds a layer of encryption before anonymity.

The Advantages:

  • You can hide your Tor usage from an ISP as this information is masked by your VPN’s IP address.
  • This requires very little setup, as all you need to do is click a button to activate your VPN, then use Tor as you normally would.
  • Easy to configure and requires minimal efforts on your part.
  • You’re still able to access Tor’s hidden services and websites that end in .onion that are only accessible through Tor.
  • Tor’s entry node will only see the IP address provided by your VPN.
  • Grants access to Tor’s hidden services.

The Disadvantages:

  • Information entering Tor is encrypted, but exit nodes remain unprotected and are still tracked by ISPs, so you can still be detected.
  • Your exit node could be blocked, and you could be left without the ability to connect to the internet
  • If your VPN connection drops, your data may still be exposed to an ISP looking at entry and exit nodes.


The second method of combining VPN and Tor is slightly more complex, as it involves connecting through Tor, and then encrypting your data as it passes through entry nodes and gets routed.

The Advantages:

  • Your IP address is better protected as it is anonymized through Tor, so ISPs can only see your exit node IP.
  • Gain protection from malicious exit nodes as data is encrypted before accessing or leaving Tor’s network. Though ISPs can see your traffic, they will not know what you are doing.
  • It lets you avoid blocked Tor exit nodes.
  • Enhances your ability to choose your server location and further augment your anonymity.
  • All your traffic is filtered through Tor, even from programs that aren’t compatible.

The Disadvantages:

  • ISPs can still detect that you are connecting to the internet through Tor.
  • You will be unable to access Tor’s hidden services and .onion sites.
  • VPNs act as fixed links in the routing chain, meaning your traffic is easier to spot and you are vulnerable to attacks.

Keep ISPs Away From Your Data With Tor And VPN

Does your ISP know you are using Tor? If you’re not being careful, the answer is yes. Despite its wonderful uses as a privacy-enhancing tool, Tor isn’t perfect, and can still let ISPs know what you are up to when you’re online. However, when combined with a VPN, you can better cover all your bases, and limit what an ISP can find out by making yourself essentially invisible over the web. If you are concerned about how much your ISP—and by extension advertisers, businesses, and even government agencies—know about your online habits, then finding ways to protect yourself is vital. Even with some minor flaws, Tor and VPN combinations offer users peace of mind and full privacy, an attribute that is increasingly hard to acquire online these days.

Article comments

1 comment
Elle says:

YOUR ISP KNOWS EVERYTHING THAT YOU DO!! Seriously though, as you said yourself, Tor isn’t foolproof. Show me one way to keep everything I do private? Yes, VPNs can work, but you have to be super careful which one you choose. Some of them keep logs and WILL turn your information over. Nothing is private.