How Safe is Tor browser?
With the growing and ever increasing use of the internet to add efficiencies to our lives, there is also the growing chance that the sensitive data that we transmit online can fall into dangerous hands. One of the ways that many people get around this problem is to employ the use of Tor or the Onion Router which can be used to stop hackers or prying eyes keeping tabs on your online activity. It works by passing your data or traffic through its system of servers so that it is hard to track where that data comes for. It therefore makes you very hard to trace.
However, in recent years, Tor and its abilities have been questioned. Many users have wondered whether Tor actually leaves them just as vulnerable as they would be if they didn’t use the software. In this guide to whether users are indeed vulnerable using Tor, we look at the software’s uses or benefits and ways to improve safety and online security if Tor does leave users open to online attack.
Why Do People Use Tor?
As briefly alluded to, Tor is an added level of protection for users when they are surfing the web. It provides a safe place for folks to browse the world wide web and in countries where the internet is heavily censored, it is an easy (and free) alternative.
For example, in a country like Iran where there are hundreds of blocked domains, citizens must look to take some extra precaution for fear of getting caught violating the law. They use apps like Tor to secure their connection and ensure their browsing activity is untraceable.
Journalists and political activists also use Tor as they try to be careful reporting news while keeping their sources safe. Local ISPs can catch wind of their location and report them to officials, so an anonymous option is a great step towards security.
Tor has a goal to provide internet freedom to everyone and so in countries where domains are blocked, it is more popular as folks are seeking a safe service and ease of use.
Due to this ease of access, anyone can use it. Oddly, this is actually a drawback to the application. It has made Tor popular among users of the Dark Web. In fact, Tor has been used by organized crime leaders and shady characters who are specifically hiding their illegal activity from the authorities. You may also run into the people who want to steal personal information, so be aware of the type of characters you will be connected to on the servers.
The Disadvantages of Using TOR
Even while Tor is a great step towards secure internet browsing, it is not your most protected option. There are a few drawbacks to using the application and it’s worth paying attention to them so you can understand how vulnerable you might be. Though Tor is a reliable service that has been trusted for years, it is still good to take a look at these drawbacks so you’re not oblivious to your risks.
It won’t protect anonymity 100% of the time – Sometimes you may find that you can hide behind the relays of the Tor network but if you are on the radar of your ISPs or if someone has access to your home Wi-Fi network, you may not be completely anonymous. Even if Tor promises anonymity, you still have to understand that your traffic can be monitored. If not by government officials, then by someone looking to be malicious with your sensitive information, who is willing to connect the dots and ultimately find you.
Its encryption methods are not robust – Your usernames and passwords are not encrypted to everyone involved in the relay. The computers set up in the relay are able to have access to your sensitive information. Tor advises users to use end-to-end encryption such as SSL for an extra shield for sensitive information.
Additionally, one of the drawbacks to Tor can be its sluggish performance. While this won’t leave you anymore vulnerable than any other connection, it is worth bearing in mind before logging on to the app. Due to the fact that the Tor network hosts a large number of users and there are many layers to go through to remain protected, your internet will take more time than normal to load. You may spend more time getting through connections than enjoying browsing. In the case that you are a fan of torrenting or streaming geo blocked content, doing so via Tor will slow down the network – not only for you but for everyone on the network, so Tor discourages it.
So Am I Safe Using Tor?
The answer to this is not straightforward. Tor is designed to provide free anonymous internet to the folks looking to protect their privacy. Even while developers continue to make efforts to increase the security Tor network provides, there are times when authorities and ISPs catch on and monitor activity.
Sometimes, this is for good reason. For example, recently European authorities along with FBI agents cracked down on the dark web drug trade that used Tor. The agencies launched Operation Onymous where they arrested 17 users and seized hundreds of dark web domains. These domains were used to solicit the drug trade and authorities were using Tor to monitor them. Rumors swirled that there were inconsistencies and vulnerabilities in the Tor program but nothing was confirmed. Tor chucked it up to good policing and not a fault in their security but it certainly raised the question of their reliability.
This wasn’t the first case however. In the US when authorities connected 150 people to the illegal sale of drugs and paraphernalia on the dark web through Tor. Once again it was never confirmed how they came across the information but it was another stab at the software’s reputation.
That’s all very well, but what about the average user that simply has their own concerns about user privacy? What new solutions have emerged to help users defend themselves from snoops and data collectors? Well, Tor certainly does add a level of security. This is because, while many ISPs are aware of the general entry and exit points most users on Tor access, they cannot track websites visited or what you’re sending and receiving. However, what ISPs can see is how much data you are using, and where you accessed the network.
With these Tor Vulnerabilities, Is Tor Safe?
In short, while Tor has excellent features that have been proven throughout the years to be useful, it’s important to remember that Tor will have moments where it will be flawed. Many times, you may think you have anonymity but you are still being monitored.
How Can I Stay Safe Online?
To completely protect yourself from prying eyes and snooping officials, you should add an extra layer of protection to Tor. It’s vital that users protect themselves in more ways than one, and combining Tor’s web browser with other security tools can be very advantageous. An extra layer solidifies your secure connection and gives you a little bit of assurance to know that folks will have a harder time finding you and your personal information. 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.
A VPN is perfect for your added protection as it can offer you secured connections to the internet and ensure that your information cannot be traced. A VPN, or virtual private network, is a group of servers on the internet that form a safe tunnel to access information online. In this tunnel, information is encrypted and geo protected. Adding a VPN to your Tor application is adding a massive padlock onto your personal information.
How To Use Tor With A VPN
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 of using a Tor with a VPN are:
- Hiding your Tor usage from your ISP. This is down to your VPN masking your IP address.
- Easy to set up. All users need to do is activate their VPN before using Tor as they normally would. Plus VPNs are easy to configure and generally require minimal effort on a user’s part.
- Tor is still accessible. Tor does not become redundant to use when employing a VPN too. This is because Tor’s hidden services and websites that end in .onion are only accessible through Tor itself. This is still possible through a VPN as Tor’s entry node will only see the IP address provided by your VPN so users are still granted access to Tor’s hidden services.
However, the disadvantages to using Tor with a VPN are :
- Information entering Tor is encrypted, but exit nodes remain unprotected. The result of this is that exit nodes are still tracked by ISPs so you could still be detected
- Your exit node could be blocked. This means users could be left without the ability to connect to the internet.
- Vulnerability 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. This method is known as VPN over Tor.
The advantages of using a VPN over Tor are:
- Your IP address is better protected. This is because it is anonymized through Tor, so ISPs can only see your exit node IP.
- Gain protection from malicious exit nodes. Data is encrypted before accessing or leaving Tor’s network giving users greater protection. Though ISPs can see your traffic, they will not know what you are doing.
- No risk of no internet connection. This method allows users to avoid blocked Tor exit nodes.
- Enhances your ability to choose your server location. This is a great benefit as it allows users to augment their anonymity.
- Access to all programs. All your traffic is filtered through Tor, even from programs that aren’t compatible.
However, the disadvantages of layering a VPN over Tor are:
- ISPs can still detect that you are connecting to the internet through Tor.
- Users will be unable to access Tor’s hidden services and .onion sites.
- VPNs act as fixed links in the routing chain. This means user traffic is easier to spot and you are vulnerable to attacks.
The Bottom Line
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.
Being concerned with privacy whilst connected to the internet, is arguably the only way to be. This has become even more imperative recently as the US government has given ISPs the legal right to collect data. Staying safe online using Tor, a VPN or a combination of both will therefore keep users safe from having the following information collected on them:
- 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. Ultimately, Tor or a VPN will stop you being susceptible to such money making schemes while also keeping you safe.