Compared to Google Chrome or even the newest version of Microsoft Edge, the Tor browser certainly isn’t the number one choice of netizens. Part of this is because we mainly think of web browsers in terms of ease of use, speed, and features.
The Tor browser ignores most of that in many instances and instead places it’s focus squarely on privacy. While that may be great, the question of safety still comes to mind – so how safe is the Tor browser?
What is Tor
Tor is an open-source web browser designed to help protect your privacy while surfing the web. It’s been dubbed “The Onion Router” since it protects your data by wrapping it in multiple layers of encryption, like an onion.
It is similar to a normal web browser in many ways except that Tor browser connects you to the internet through the Tor network. In this network, your traffic is randomly directed through multiple servers, making it harder to trace your point of origin.
How Tor Browser Works
Tor is easy to install and use. Download it from the Tor website, install it just like any other application, then simply launch and use it. On the user end there doesn’t seem to be any mystery about it.
Behind the scenes though, is where the magic happens. First, Tor encrypts all data before sending it through the Tor network. Once in the network, your packets of encrypted data get randomly routed through a series of servers called nodes or relays.
Each time one of these nodes is traversed, a layer of encryption is removed to reveal the location of the next destination. When your data reaches the final node (exit node), the last layer of encryption is removed and your data is then sent to its final destination.
Each node decrypts only enough data to reveal the location of the previous and next nodes only. Since each path is generated in a random manner and none of the nodes keep records, it’s nearly impossible for your activity to be traced back to you.
Is Tor Browser Really Safe to Use?
Recently, the utility of Tor has been questioned for the high risk it poses to users in some scenarios. In fact, it’s been exposed that some Tor nodes have even been attacking Tor users.
Although initially thought safe, Tor does have known vulnerabilities. When coupled with these new revelations, Tor might not be as good an option on its own as you may think.
Here are some reasons why Tor may not be safe to use:
Exit Nodes Can be Exposed
The exit node is the last node to handle your data before it reaches its final destination. It is here that the final layer of encryption on your data is all removed and is susceptible to being intercepted by unscrupulous users.
Although your original IP is safe, the information here can be exposed to the operator running the exit node, especially if you’re visiting an unsecured HTTP website. Anyway, you usually still stay anonymous as your data has been through at least two other nodes before that.
Tor Can be Defeated Via Confirmation Attacks
Powerful entities such as state agencies can use surveillance techniques to correlate user transmissions between the first entry and exit nodes. This can result in compromise to anonymity by attempting to detect patterns of behavior.
Nodes are observed on both ends of Tor circuits and from there, it is possible to put the entire circuit together. This can expose the IP of the user on the first node and the final destination of their web traffic on the last node, thus enabling them to match users to their online activities.
Tor Nodes Can be Compromised En Route
Each server in the Tor network is volunteer-operated, so you never know who’s behind the nodes. Tor’s safety is based on the assumption that these Tor volunteers are honest and do not spy on the traffic.
Generally, this isn’t a problem as each node can only access the location of the previous and next nodes, except for the exit node. Having said this, there is still this chance although minimal, of your data being compromised en route.
Windows Digital Files are Vulnerable
Windows DRM copyrighted digital files can compromise the identity of Tor Browser users. Setting up so-called deanonymization attack codes in such files can pose a danger to Tor users once downloaded and opened. These codes have been known to decloak Tor.
Using Tor Safely
Because of the many unknowns when using tools like Tor, HideandSeek always recommends taking some precautionary measures. This can range from behavior modification to the additional use of other tools with it. For example:
Do Not Torrent Over Tor
Torrenting sends out your real IP in the tracker GET request, thus deanonymizing your torrent and web traffic. Also, this slows down the entire Tor network which is already somewhat slow to begin with.
Even with Tor, Google remains a nightmare for most privacy-concerned users. If you’re planning to use Tor anonymously, make sure you Google-related products such as Google Search. Opt for a privacy-centric search engine like DuckDuckGo instead.
Use Tor With a Reputable VPN
Although Tor can be effective in masking your location and identity, it doesn’t offer the same level of security and safety like a Virtual Private Network (VPN) does. The good news is that many VPNs can be combined with Tor to make the experience much safer.
This works by first connecting to a VPN server and then loading the Tor browser. By doing so you reap the benefits of both the VPN as well as Tor at the same time.
For better privacy and safety on Internet, consider using one of these no-log VPNs.
Nothing on the Internet today is really 100% foolproof when it comes to user privacy. This is especially true when it comes to anything that’s free. While Tor may be a great concept, it does have some potentially serious drawbacks as well.
Whether you decide to use Tor, a VPN, or even a combination of both, always keep in mind that the choices you make matter. Treat the web as you would real life and don’t overshare – especially to strangers.