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Although the use of the internet is pervasive, many users may never have heard of Tor. This network can be very useful, but the average internet user may wonder “What is a Tor browser?” and “Is Tor safe to use?”. Below, learn why the Tor network has become so popular.

What is a Tor browser?

Tor (an acronym for The Onion Router) is essentially a network that masks online traffic. Tor browser is an open-source platform managed by volunteers and, due to its onion routing, creates anonymity for users who access websites and servers through this network. The browser is often used legitimately by journalists and other users who need to protect their identities, for example, while investigating the opposition in a legal dispute, or researching competitors.

So, what is a Tor browser?

In the simplest terms, Tor browser is a software that allows users to browse the internet with a relatively high degree of privacy. The network and browser take their name from the fact that they direct all web activity through several routers—called nodes—much like going through the layers of an onion, making it difficult to track and identify users.

However, there is a close association between Tor and the dark web because the Tor browser is often used for illicit activity, even though there was never any intention for Tor to enable criminality. Although the Tor browser is legal in many countries, some do not allow residents to access the network.

How does a Tor browser work?

So how does Tor work? In its simplest form, a Tor browser use onion routing to direct and encrypt all traffic, offering users a high level of anonymity. The network transmits traffic through three layers of international network nodes called onion routers:

  • Entry nodes, which form the first layer of encryption and enable the connection to the Tor network.
  • A series of middle nodes fully encrypt web traffic to ensure anonymity.
  • Exit nodes, which further encrypt data before it reaches the final server.

Because onion routing effectively encrypts and relays data through multiple network layers, the Tor browser is highly effective at protecting user data and concealing IP addresses.

What is the Tor browser used for?

There are several questions worth asking about Tor, including “What does a Tor browser do?” and how its use differs from regular browsers. The Tor browser is primarily a way to browse the web anonymously. As such, the main reason it is used is to avoid surveillance and ensure privacy while online. However, many people also use Tor to access services that regular browsers cannot reach, such as .onion sites which only function on the onion network, such as DuckDuckGo, a privacy-enhanced search engine, which offers a .onion version of its search engine, which doesn't track user data, providing a more private search experience.

In addition, because Tor is closely linked with the dark web, some users use this for particular types of research, and also to carry out illegal activities.

Benefits of a Tor browser

The Tor browser does have several advantages, which is why some internet users can benefit from using it. However, not all of these will be relevant to regular internet users. Here are some of the main reasons why some users choose to use a Tor onion browser:

  • The browser is a free, open-source program
  • IP addresses and browsing history are masked
  • Enjoy heightened network security because the Tor browser operates on secure, encrypted networks
  • Easy access to non-indexed pages, especially through search engines

Disadvantages of Tor browser

Aside from security concerns and wondering “is the Tor browser safe,” there are some other potential disadvantages of using this software. Below are a few things to keep in mind before deciding to use the Tor onion browser.

  • Because of the way it routes traffic, Tor connections are very slow, especially when compared to VPNs, and downloading large files is not practical.
  • Activity may not be completely anonymous, and it is possible to decrypt a user’s identity
  • Some countries and companies can block the Tor browser, and its usage can even be illegal in certain countries.
  • The use of this browser can be suspicious, even if it is legal
  • Not all websites function on Tor

What are the differences between the Tor browser, proxy servers, and VPNs?

While the Tor browser, proxy servers, and VPNs all offer some form of anonymity, they differ slightly in how they work and the levels of protection they provide.

Proxy servers essentially function as an intermediary between a user and the websites they access. While they do obscure IP addresses and geographical locations, they do not encrypt data and online activity. Because of this, user data remains exposed and can easily be tracked and hacked. So, is Tor safe compared to proxy servers? Yes, to an extent. Despite the weaknesses outlined above, the Tor browser offers a much higher level of encryption and routing, giving users more anonymity. While using a proxy server alongside the Tor browser can help mask the use of Tor, using both a proxy server and Tor browser will not offer any further protection to users.

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are powerful networks that fully encrypt all web traffic by routing it through different servers, thereby also obscuring the user’s IP address. The most significant difference between VPNs and the Tor browser is that VPN is operated by central providers who operate the network, while the latter is a decentralized network managed by volunteers. Additionally, Tor routes data through independent nodes, while VPNs route online traffic through remote servers.

Is the Tor browser safe to use?

Because of the close association between Tor and the dark web, many users rightfully wonder “Is Tor safe to use”? With an understanding of what the Tor browser is, the answer to that question—generally—is yes. Because of its onion routing protocols and data encryption, the Tor browser offers a reasonably high level of privacy and protection when used correctly. Of course, like any other browser, it is still vulnerable to an array of online attacks, such as malware and phishing. Here are a few security concerns to be aware of:

  • The final part of the data relay on the Tor network—between the exit node and destination server—is not encrypted, giving third parties an opportunity to monitor and track web traffic.
  • It may still be possible for third parties to deploy fingerprinting to identify users; for example, if they use Tor to access compromised websites with JavaScript enabled, it can be possible to track mouse movements.
  • Tor onion browser is still vulnerable to being compromised by security bugs.
  • It is important to use the latest versions of Tor browsers, as obsolete versions may have various vulnerabilities, enabling malicious actors to impersonate the user.

In a practical sense, the answer to the question of “Is the Tor browser safe?” is that it is secure if the user has a good amount of cybersecurity knowledge. There are numerous measures that users can take to further protect their data and identities if they plan to use Tor. However, there are limits to the anonymity the Tor onion browser can provide. Specifically, internet service providers (ISPs) and network administrators can still be able to see that Tor is being used.

How to stay safe while using the Tor browser

Many users wonder “How to stay safe while using the Tor browser?” and this is indeed a fair question. As with anything else online, there is an inherent risk with using a Tor browser. However, users can take steps to mitigate these and be mindful of their online activities. Here are a few tips for safely using the Tor browser:

  • Ensure that the Tor browser and any associated apps or extensions are always up to date.
  • Use the Tor browser in conjunction with a VPN.
  • Employ a firewall to protect the computer’s network.
  • Use antivirus software.
  • Avoid logging into personal accounts, such as social media profiles or emails.
  • Use the Tor browser randomly, so that it is hard to create identifiable patterns.
  • Use the highest level of security available on the chosen Tor browser, so that it executes the least amount of browser code and helps protect devices from malware.
  • Use an extension that protects your privacy and only accesses secure HTTPS websites, such as extensions that will automatically rewrite a URL to use HTTPS instead of HTTP.

Tor browser: A different way to use the internet

Despite Tor and the dark web being closely linked, using Tor browser doesn’t mean involving in illicit activities. It can be very useful software to certain internet users. Because of how it operates, Tor is generally safe to use, and Tor onion browser offer several benefits like heightened safety and privacy. Before using the Tor browser, though, users should be aware of any potential legal issues with Tor in their country, and that they could be flagged for its use.

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Tor Browser: What is it and is it safe?

The Tor browser has become popular due to the benefits it offers users. Learn what the Tor browser is, whether it is safe, and how to use it.
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