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The Tor Browser takes online privacy to extremes. With an encrypted and anonymous connection, Tor helps you access the unindexed part of the internet known as the dark web. But how does this dark web browser work, and is it safe? Learn more about Tor and its pros and cons — then get Avast Secure Browser for cleaner and faster private browsing.
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Tor anonymizes web traffic with a special encryption technique originally developed by the US Navy to help protect American intelligence communications. Today, Tor is an open-source, privacy platform available to everyone. Though some countries — like China — have banned its use outright.
Besides a web browser, Tor also provides onion services via its onion network to enable anonymity for websites and servers. A [dot]onion web address, which is exclusively accessible via the Tor Browser, protects the identity of both the website and visitors.
With a complex, encrypted connection that offers up anonymity for both hosts and visitors, Tor is often used to create and access the dark web. As such, Tor is the very definition of a dark web browser.
Tor uses onion routing to encrypt and reroute web traffic through Tor’s onion network. After your data is secured inside multiple layers of encryption, your web traffic is transmitted through a series of network nodes, called onion routers. Each router (or node) “peels away” a layer of encryption until the data reaches its final destination, fully decrypted.
Tor anonymously transmits encrypted data across three layers of international proxies that make up the Tor circuit. Let’s take a closer look at the three layers of network nodes:
Entry/Guard node: First, Tor Browser randomly connects to a publicly known entry node. The entry node introduces your data into the Tor circuit.
Middle nodes: Here your data is fully encrypted. Then it’s sent through a series of nodes which decrypt your data one layer at a time. To ensure anonymity, each middle node knows only the identity of the preceding and the subsequent middle nodes.
Exit node: Once the last layer of encryption is peeled off, the decrypted data leaves the Tor network via an exit node and reaches its final server destination.
Tor Browser sends web traffic through an entry node (blue), middle node (green), and exit node (orange) to encrypt and decrypt traffic.
Sounds complicated, right? That’s because it is. But fortunately knowing how to use Tor Browser doesn’t require a PhD in computer science — it’s surprisingly easy and user-friendly.
Tor Browser’s onion routing technology is extremely effective at concealing your IP address from network surveillance or traffic analysis. In addition to relaying your data through network nodes to hide your location and identity, onion routing uses multi-layered encryption to provide even more robust privacy protection.
Because Tor-encrypted data needs to be “peeled“ through more than 7,000 independent network relays before it’s fully decrypted, by the time internet traffic reaches its destination, its origin is completely obscured. This elaborate process shows how secure Tor is at protecting data and hiding your IP address from websites, your ISP, and even the government.
Your web traffic goes through thousands of layers of decryption when connecting to the internet via Tor Browser.
Tor Browser is anonymous in terms of hiding your location and browsing activity — but there are limits. Although they can’t see your browsing activity or Tor encrypted data, your ISP can still see that you’re using Tor. You can also be identified if you log in to an online account or provide details to a website while using Tor.
A proxy server acts as an intermediary between you and web sites and services. While proxies hide your IP address and location, they don't encrypt internet traffic, meaning your data is still exposed in transit. Tor Browser is much more secure thanks to onion routing and multi-layer encryption, which anonymizes your location and protects your data from hackers, web trackers, and other snoops.
Using a proxy server in combination with Tor Browser can help to hide the fact that you’ve connected to Tor, but it won’t confer any additional cybersecurity benefits. Not sure which private browsing tool you need? Read our guide to see whether a VPN, proxy, or Tor is best.
Tor is not the same as a VPN, though both tools provide encryption and reroute your web traffic to another network. A key difference between Tor and a VPN is that a VPN’s network is operated by a central service provider, while the Tor network is decentralized and run by volunteers.
In addition, Tor and VPNs take different approaches to rerouting data. A VPN sends your web traffic to a server, which transmits it to the internet. Tor’s onion routing method reroutes your data through a series of independent nodes. Though Tor is slower, the process of rerouting data through nodes makes it more difficult to trace your activity back to you.
Tor Browser is primarily used as a method of anonymous browsing. From journalists and civil society organizations seeking to escape spying or political repression, to regular individuals with online privacy concerns, Tor Browser users are a diverse group. But criminals also take advantage of Tor’s anonymity to carry out illegal activities both on and off the dark web.
Despite its impressive privacy features, there are still ways that you can be tracked while using Tor. Onion routing is a sophisticated means to prevent tracking your location, but there's no such thing as perfect online anonymity.
Although your internet traffic is encrypted on Tor, your ISP can still see that you’re connected to Tor. Plus, Tor cannot protect against tracking at the entry and exit nodes of its network. Anyone who owns and operates the entry node will see your real IP address. And at the exit node, your decrypted traffic is vulnerable to interception.
You can reinforce Tor’s weak spots by pairing it with a VPN that provides end-to-end encryption. That means your web traffic will be fully encrypted at the entry and exit nodes of the Tor network, and using VPN-over-Tor will keep your real IP address safe from any prying eyes lurking at those gateways.
Use Tor alongside a VPN to ensure your web traffic is fully encrypted.
One of the main reasons to use Tor is the high level of privacy provided by the onion network. Not only do Tor’s security protocols allow users to access sites safely and hide their IP address, but the browser is open-source, free, and simple to use, especially considering the complex protection it provides.
Tor Browser is legal to use in most countries, although there may be a stigma attached to using it, because Tor is often associated with dark web criminality. But despite its sometimes seedy reputation, the dark web is host to many legitimate resources, like the dark web wikipedia, secure email services, and research databases. If you’re not engaged in illicit activities, it’s not a crime to use the dark web to protect your privacy.
Still, Tor usage can call undue attention to your web activity, which could be counter-productive if you’re seeking privacy. ISPs have been known to throttle internet speeds and even contact customers about Tor usage. Your government may also track your activities if you use Tor.
In some countries, Tor itself is outlawed. China has banned anonymous browsing — making Tor illegal to use. Other countries like Russia and Venezuela actively try to block their citizens from using Tor. If you’re interested in anonymous browsing, first check whether Tor or VPNs are legal in your country.
The Tor Browser is generally considered safe and secure thanks to onion routing protocol that encrypts your data and hides your IP address. But Tor does have some vulnerabilities, and as with any browser, Tor users remain vulnerable to online threats, ranging from malware to phishing scams.
Knowing how to safely use Tor means using it alongside other cybersecurity tools, so set up a VPN to benefit from end-to-end encryption. And make sure your network’s protected by a firewall and the best antivirus software.
For many, Tor is synonymous with the dark web — the unindexed part of the internet that’s only accessible with certain browsers. The connection between Tor and the dark web started with the Silk Road, the first dark web market where customers could buy drugs and other illegal goods. When in operation, the notorious online marketplace could only be accessed through Tor.
As a browser that enables anonymity to both website hosts and visitors, the appeal of Tor to dark web participants is obvious. And though the dark web is not just a haven for illicit activity, accessing the dark web via the onion browser is popular with criminals.
But Tor was not designed with criminality in mind, or intended to be the “dark web browser.” Tor is a legitimate and effective online privacy tool that’s used by a variety of users who value their online privacy and data security.
Although Tor is a sophisticated privacy tool, it has several disadvantages — some of which counteract its cybersecurity advantages.
Here are the disadvantages of using Tor:
Slow Speeds: Tor is a slow browser. Onion routing encrypts web traffic and sends it through a series of network nodes — this is great for privacy, but the elaborate process results in slow speeds compared to other browsers. Although there are ways of making Tor faster, you can’t significantly boost speeds.
Stigma: Tor has acquired the unfortunate stigma of dark web illegality. ISPs and governments may take note of people who use the browser. For people seeking privacy, Tor may bring them the opposite.
Blocking: Some network administrators block Tor. Some websites also keep track of and block web traffic coming from Tor exit nodes. But you can mask node usage by using Tor bridges or a VPN.
Vulnerabilities: Though Tor is designed for anonymity, the onion network is vulnerable at the entry and exit nodes. Since internet traffic is not encrypted at these points, your data is liable to interception, and your IP address could be exposed.
Though the Tor Browser has strong ties with dark web browsing, it also has competition. There are other browsers that can also access the dark web. Though Tor enables anonymity, these other browsers have their own advantages.
Here are the other dark web browsers:
Subgraph OS: This open-source operating system is designed to be resistant to surveillance and other snoops. It’s been mentioned by whistleblower Edward Snowden as showing potential.
Firefox: Though this popular and accessible browser can access the dark web, it lacks safety features.
Waterfox: Based on Firefox, the Waterfox browser is fast and features tracking protection to safeguard your privacy.
I2P - Invisible Internet Project: Similar to Tor, this is a fully-encrypted, private network layer.
Tor is currently available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s a Firefox-based app that’s downloaded and installed on your computer. After installation, you can use Tor to access the public internet as well as .onion websites.
Here’s how to use Tor on Windows and Mac:
On the Tor project website, go to the Tor Browser download page.
Click on the download link for your OS.
Once downloaded, install the Tor Browser application.
Launch the Tor Browser application and connect to the Tor network.
Tor is available on mobile only for Android devices, as there’s no Tor Browser for iPhone. The mobile Tor Browser is an application you can download on the Tor project website and the Google Play store.
Here’s how to access Tor on your Android device:
On the Tor project website, go to the Tor Browser download page. Or, find and download the app in the Google Play store.
Download the app on your Android device.
Click the app icon on your home screen to launch the browser.
Though Tor is a powerful tool for anonymous browsing, it’s not without flaws. Tor is slow and can be vulnerable to attacks. And Tor may attract unwanted attention from your government or ISP. If you’re looking for a secure and private alternative that’s also much easier to use than Tor, get Avast Secure Browser.
Light, fast, and easy-to-use, Avast Secure Browser is designed to provide ironclad online privacy, while stopping hackers from stealing your data, blocking malicious links, and warning you about dangerous websites. Avast Secure Browser also forces websites to use encryption and integrates seamlessly with a VPN for ultimate security and privacy. Download Avast Secure Browser today.