If you’ve read any of our reviews, you probably noticed we always include a section on whether the VPN will work with The Onion Router, or TOR for short.
We always give a short-but-sweet definition of TOR in our reviews (just in case). However, we thought it might be more useful to create this separate guide on understanding TOR for those interested in knowing more about the anonymous proxy browser.
This is especially true if you’re leery of using something without first knowing as much as you possibly can about it. We’re strong supporters of exercising this type of caution, especially when it comes to services promising to help you regain some measure of control over your online privacy.
What Is TOR? How Does It Work?
When you connect to the internet, your data travels from your device to the end destination (the website’s server) in the shortest way possible.
TOR adds a few extra steps.
Similar to the way a Virtual Private Network (VPN) changes your IP address, the TOR browser masks your location by redirecting your connection via 3 (typically randomly chosen) servers, each with their own IP address.
This makes it more difficult for website owners, your ISP, and the government to personally identify you.
TOR also adds multiple layers of encryption to your web traffic. However, each relay server (or node) your traffic passes through also represents a loss of one encryption layer (like peeling an onion). Even so, your data is only fully decrypted once it leaves the final server – the exit node – and is relayed to the final destination.
The final destination is either the server hosting the website you’re trying to access or your own device. You see, when the website sends data back to you (so you can view the website content), it’s put through the same process.
Does TOR Really Hide My IP Address?
Your online activity via TOR will rarely be traceable back to your original IP address (we say “rarely” because there are some weaknesses, and quantum computing might one day render the process obsolete anyway).
Your ISP will be able to see your original IP address, of course. But they’ll only be able to see you’re connected to the first TOR relay server (the entry node), which means they can’t track your online activity. This is a very good thing.
Similarly, the website you’re accessing will only be able to see the IP address of the exit node and assume it’s your original IP address.
Is TOR a VPN? If Not, Can I Still Use TOR Instead of a VPN?
Even though both TOR and VPNs are tools you can use to protect your online privacy, they aren’t the same thing at all.
The biggest (and most obvious) difference lies in the encryption methods used.
TOR uses a system first developed by the US Navy for protecting government intelligence communications. It bundles your data into encrypted packets that are layered, with each layer being removed as it passes through the relay nodes. As mentioned earlier, the final encryption layer is removed by the exit node before your data is relayed to the end destination.
VPN encryption, on the other hand, is end-to-end. This means your data is encrypted from the moment it leaves your device, right up until the end destination receives it, and vice-versa (when you receive data).
While you could think of the VPN server (or servers if you’re using a Double VPN/Multi Hop feature) as relay nodes, it’s a little more complicated than that. VPN protocols protect your data in transit as well by securing the tunnel.
For this reason, it’s safer to use a VPN by itself than it is to use TOR by itself. Of course, it’s even better to use the TOR-over-VPN method, which will be explained in more detail below.
Does TOR Really Make Me More Anonymous Online?
To a certain extent, yes.
One of the obvious weaknesses of TOR is the fact the exit node completely decrypts your data. So even though the website you’re accessing can’t see your original IP address, it’s theoretically possible for the exit node itself to spy on your online activities if you’re visiting an unsecured HTTP website.
If you’re using plugins and browser extensions, some of them might also be exploited to reveal data such as your original IP address without you knowing it.
Plus, the mere fact you’re using TOR at all (and remember your IP can see you are) can draw more attention to you. Even if you’re only using TOR to circumnavigate normal surveillance and tracking, the government tends to take an “all or nothing” approach and might decide to initiate a more targeted surveillance of your online activities.
TOR also has the disadvantage of slowing your internet traffic down. This is true for VPNs as well, but TOR can make your connection a lot slower than even one of the best VPNs will.
The main reason we mention this with regards to anonymity is even TOR’s creators discourage users from torrenting via the proxy browser. More to the point, your torrenting activities won’t be encrypted between the exit node and the torrent site, so your original IP address might end up exposed.
Finally, as soon as you log into any online account, the level of anonymity TOR does afford you is nullified. After all, logging in immediately identifies you, even if it’s only to the website you’re accessing (and it very rarely is only the website).
TOR does do a great job of making you more anonymous online and it’s a great tool to use for doing so. However, true online anonymity is virtually impossible – and, as you’ve now seen, is also remarkably fragile.
Is it Legal to Use TOR?
Before we explain how to go about using TOR, we want to get this issue out of the way.
One of the primary concerns about using TOR is the stigma attached to doing so and the reason your ISP and the government frown upon TOR users in general. We’re talking about the idea that cybercriminals can use TOR to commit cybercrimes.
To be frank, it’s a ridiculous argument to use against TOR. Here’s what the creators have to say on the matter:
So even though your ISP and the government might frown upon using TOR, it’s perfectly legal for you to do so.
With that said, there are some jurisdictions where TOR is actually illegal (or, at the very least, blocked by the authorities): China and Venezuela, for example. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia are also working hard at doing the same.
How Do I Use TOR?
Start off by visiting TORProject.org and downloading the proxy browser directly from the official website. You have 4 options:
- Android (APK version)
If you’re using an Android, you’ll find it easier to simply download TOR from the Google Play Store. Apple makes it difficult for anyone to publish official iOS apps, but TOR has endorsed the OnionBrowser iOS app in lieu of being able to launch their own version.
Once you have the browser installed, you can open it up and use it just like you would any other browser.
However, bear in mind some websites block TOR traffic because they want to track your online activity. Others might bombard you with CAPTCHA codes before giving you access. Along with the speed reduction, this can be highly annoying. Unfortunately, that’s the price you pay for increased online privacy.
Instead of simply launching the browser after installation, we strongly recommend using the TOR-over-VPN method mentioned earlier.
Simply open your VPN app and connect to a server of your choosing. Once you’re connected, go ahead and launch TOR. It’s that easy, provided your VPN is compatible with TOR (not all are, which is precisely why we cover this issue in our reviews).
One of the biggest advantages to TOR-over-VPN is you’re protected by end-to-end encryption (though a dodgy exit node might still be problematic).
Perhaps even more important, the TOR entry node won’t know your original IP address and your ISP won’t know you’re using TOR. However, if your VPN provider keeps logs (and they shouldn’t), then the latter of these two advantages is nullified. Make sure you compare VPNs to find one that doesn’t keep logs.
Now that you know more about TOR, we hope you’re feeling better equipped to make a decision as to whether or not you’ll be using it. We personally prefer using a Double VPN, but if that’s not an option, then TOR-over-VPN is our trusty back-up!