Written by Domenic Molinaro
Published on August 25, 2023

What is Tor Browser?

Tor is a browser built to help you anonymize your web activity and stay private online. Tor also helps you visit sites on the dark web — the part of the internet that isn’t indexed by search engines. Tor stands for The Onion Router, since it encrypts connections behind a series of relay nodes that resemble the layers of an onion. This encryption process helps keep Tor users anonymous.

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    Tor is one of the easiest and safest ways to access the dark web, which is unavailable to normal “surface web” browsers. Dark websites are encrypted behind relay nodes as well, so neither the visitor nor the host of a website know each other’s identity. Tor’s relay network is volunteer-run, which means your traffic is actually going through other people's computers, and the browser doesn’t store browsing history or site data.

    Why do people use Tor?

    Anonymity is what Tor Browser does best. Tor hides users from anyone who might be watching, whether it’s an Internet service provider (ISP), the government, advertisers, or cybercriminals. Tor’s data encryption attracts anyone who wants to keep their activity hidden, regardless of their motives.

    Here are some reasons people install the Tor web browser:

    • Illegal trading: It can act as a black market for cybercriminals, such as hacking experts offering their services and data brokers buying and selling personal information.

    • Illegal materials: Tor sites host information other browsers can’t, such as copyrighted material, government documents, or objectionable films and images.

    • Whistleblowing: Dissidents holding truth to power need to protect themselves. Edward Snowden famously used Tor while exposing NSA’s illegal surveillance program, and he has detailed his use of Tor on Twitter (now known as X).

    • Bypassing censorship: Some countries don’t allow freedom of speech and expression. In some countries, Tor gives access to channels unavailable on the “clear web,” allowing people there to communicate without worry of censorship or persecution.

    • Bypassing restricted content: Many sites and streaming services restrict content by country or continent. With Tor, you can more easily unblock content and bypass geo-blocking.

    • Health privacy: When it comes to health issues, privacy is often paramount. Whether it’s to hide from family members, insurance companies, or other nosy parties, some users want to keep their medical info anonymous.

    • Journalism: Investigative journalism outlets, such as ProPublica, use Tor to do their work without fear of reprisal.

    Many people also use Tor the same way they use normal browsers, just with more anonymity.

    How can I access Tor?

    You can access Tor by going to https://www.torproject.org/ and installing the appropriate Tor Browser bundle for your operating system. But there are some things to keep in mind about how to access Tor and how it works on different systems:

    • Tor Browser for Mac is different from Tor on other systems. Because Apple requires all web browser apps to use specific code (Webkit), Tor can’t use the same web engine for macOS as for other operating systems. This may result in less privacy protection on Apple products than Tor Browser on Chromebook or Windows, for example.

    • The official Tor Browser isn’t available for iOS, but there is a good alternative called Onion Browser. However, due to Apple’s restrictions, this browser doesn’t have full control over all aspects of network traffic and may route audio and video through your normal connection.

    • Tor Browser for Android is the official Tor Browser app, which you can install via Google Play. You can also get the Tor Browser APK file through the open-source site APK Pure — but read up on APK Pure’s safety before heading over there.

    • Tor Browser for Ubuntu. For help installing the Ubuntu Tor Browser, consult How to Install Tor via Tor’s support site. This page can also help you with your Tor Browser download for Mac if you’re having issues.

    • Tor Browser for Linux. Tor installation on Linux can be tricky. Go to the Tor installation page for a rundown if you’re having trouble.

      A picture of the Tor Browser homepage.

    What is the Tor Browser bundle?

    Known as Tor Expert Bundle, it’s a package intended for developers so they can bundle Tor with their applications. It’s available for Windows, macOS, GNU/Linux, and Android.

    How does Tor Browser work?

    Tor Browser works by sending a data packet through an entry node, a randomized relay node, and a randomized exit node. Each node only decrypts enough information in the data packet to know where to send it next, until the exit node finally contacts the website you want to access, completing the request without identifying the source.

    Tor Browser works by sending data packets through encrypted nodes — entry, relay, and exit — which protect the identity of the sender. Tor sends data packets through encrypted nodes, helping to protect the identity of the sender.

    On normal browsers, the IP address of your computer or router can be traced as you access websites. With Tor Browser, you’re assigned a unique browsing IP each time you open it. But as you surf during a session, entry nodes remember your browsing IP.

    Keep in mind that Tor’s nodes are other people on the network. Anyone can volunteer to be a node. This has led to malicious relays, where bad actors register as nodes to steal user data.

    Accessing hidden services

    Tor’s hidden services, also known as onion services, keep the publisher of the service anonymous. Just as Tor hides your identity by relaying your connection through nodes, a service can hide its identity from you by relaying its own connection. Tor's hidden services have .onion domain names, which is why some people call Tor “the onion browser.”

    Knowing how to use Tor Browser comes down to finding out the .onion addresses you want to visit. Many well-known companies such as Facebook and Twitter have .onion counterparts, and Wikipedia even has an entire list of onion services.

    You can search for Tor’s hidden services on your normal browser through a search engine such as Ahmia. Tor also has its own version of Wikipedia, called The Hidden Wiki. Be aware that The Hidden Wiki has links to material you might find objectionable, that there’s no longer a single official site, and that many fake sites claim to be the real thing.

    Is Tor Browser safe to use?

    Tor Browser is safe to use if you’re browsing the same sites you would on the “clear web.” But if you browse .onion sites, use caution. Tor’s encryption tries to keep your identity and destination secret, but bad actors can still find a way to identify you. Plus, Tor’s lack of regulation allows for illicit activity and the proliferation of cybercriminals.

    Is Tor illegal?

    Tor is not itself illegal, but much of the activity on the dark web is illegal. Activities using Tor Browser are subject to the laws of each respective country. Depending on the country, even just accessing certain dark web sites may be illegal.

    If you are browsing Tor’s onion sites, you should tread carefully and only visit reputable ones. How safe Tor Browser is depends upon your own actions and common sense while using it or visiting the dark web.

    Advantages of using Tor Browser

    The main advantages of using Tor Browser are anonymity and access to dark web sites. Since Tor is free, open-source, and decentralized, it’s accessible to all and generally resistant to corruption.

    Here are a few of the advantages of using Tor Browser:

    Open source

    Tor is open-source, which means the source code is freely available for inspection and modification. You can install or remove any components you desire, or even modify the code itself if you know how. Transparency means you don’t have to worry about what Tor is hiding from you. You — and everyone else — have total control over Tor.

    Decentralized server network

    Tor is decentralized, which means there isn’t a central authority watching over any of the browser’s activity. Nothing you do is recorded after you quit your session. With Tor, you don’t have to worry about comments coming back to haunt you, or your internet history being tracked. The Tor community keeps Tor running, but no top-down authority has access or control of the data.

    Multilayered encryption

    Traffic is relayed three times through random servers (or relays) as it passes the entry node, a randomized relay node, and a randomized exit node. However, the exit relay doesn’t encrypt traffic, so data is left unencrypted as soon as it leaves the Tor network. Using a VPN fixes this issue and means your data will be encrypted at the exit node too.

    Provides access to .onion sites and the dark web

    There’s a lot of content that simply isn’t available on the regular web. Whether it’s marketplaces with goods that are difficult to purchase elsewhere, hosts for paywalled academic research, or forums discussing controversial topics, there’s usually a dark web site that scratches every itch.

    Disadvantages of using Tor Browser

    Tor is a dark web browser built by “the people.” Without the resources of private companies, the infrastructure can get overloaded. And while Tor’s anonymous nature frees it from prying eyes, it also opens it to risk. You are sending your information through other people’s computers, which makes some people uneasy regardless of the assurances.

    Tor browsing can be slow

    Routing your connection for every request takes time. Not only that, Tor has over a million daily users, and only 6,000-10,000 relays at any given time. This leads to server overload as the relays work hard to process all the incoming and outgoing requests.

    Used for criminal activity

    The lack of regulation makes the Tor online browser a hotspot for every seedy type of internet activity. Hackers are looking for a vulnerability, thieves are looking for an opportunity, and scammers are looking for a mark. Anonymity only goes so far when you have to worry about so many threats.

    Risk of deanonymization

    The amount of illegal activity makes Tor an online browser to watch for many authorities. Tor started as US naval research, and some still think Tor is one huge ,honeypot used to catch busy criminal bees. In 2015, the FBI hacked over 8,000 dark web users in 120 countries based on one warrant.

    It’s easy to let your guard down on Tor, with all the promise of anonymity. But if authorities get a piece of information on you, or trick you into giving it to them, they can put together the rest. The same goes for cybercriminals. Using a VPN over Tor Browser can help protect your anonymity further, among other benefits.

    Threat of malware

    Anonymity means much less risk of getting caught, which makes cybercriminals more daring on Tor. At the same time, there’s less regulation. This combination can make malware threats more prevalent on the dark web than on the surface web.

    Make sure to download Tor Browser only from official sources. Thieves set up malware disguised as Tor Browsers in March 2023 and stole around $400,000 in cryptocash from unsuspecting victims.

    As an extra weapon in your arsenal, install trusted antivirus software like AVG AntiVirus Free. With 24/7 protection, AVG can help protect your device from malware in real time, including blocking malicious websites and downloads that might be lurking on the web.

    Less protection on certain systems

    JavaScript has been used to exploit Tor in the past, which makes Windows users particularly vulnerable. Windows users make up a large portion of Tor’s user base, making Windows systems a bigger target for hackers as well.

    Though Apple offers strong security, Apple restricts Tor from using its normal code on macOS and iOS. Linux and macOS Tor users also suffered an IP address leak in 2017 due to security flaws.

    Hackers use exit nodes

    Though Tor assigns exit nodes randomly, anyone can register to be an exit node because the process for node registration is not well-regulated. Hackers can squat on exit nodes to perform a man-in-the-middle attack on whoever is unlucky enough to come their way.

    Exit nodes aren’t exclusively vulnerable. Tor’s entry nodes know your browsing IP, and the middle nodes know the location of the entry and exit nodes. If any of the nodes are compromised, your identity might be pieced together.

    What is the difference between Tor and a VPN?

    A VPN encrypts your connection through a single privately-owned server, while Tor encrypts your browsing session several times through volunteer-run servers. Tor is meant to keep both you and the website you are browsing anonymous, while a VPN is for personal privacy. Tor is also free, while VPNs are generally paid.

    Like VPNs, proxy servers also change your IP address. But, they don’t offer encryption. See a rundown of a VPN vs. proxy vs. Tor for all the pros and cons. Or if you’re new to the VPN world, see what a VPN is and why you should use one.

    To get both privacy and anonymity, it’s best to pair Tor with a VPN. Here’s how to set up a VPN on the most common devices:

    Pair Tor Browser with a VPN

    Tor’s entry nodes know your IP, and Tor’s exit nodes know where you visited. A VPN for Tor Browser helps address the security holes in Tor’s system, shielding your location from entry nodes, and your traffic from exit nodes.

    An example of how using Tor and a VPN helps keep your online activity private.Using a VPN with Tor strengthens your online privacy.

    Just using Tor can look bad to anyone watching. Though your ISP might not know what you’re doing, they can still tell that your IP has connected to Tor. Among the other benefits, putting yourself behind a VPN like AVG Secure VPN keeps your ISP and other prying eyes from knowing you’re using Tor at all.

    How to use Tor safely

    Besides setting up a VPN over your Tor Browser, there are other ways to use Tor safely. Here are a few:

    Enhance your security levels

    The Tor Browser offers three different security settings: Standard has all browser and site features enabled by default. Safer disables JavaScript and some fonts and math symbols on non-HTTPS sites. Safest disables JavaScript and some fonts, icons, and math symbols on all sites.

    On safer and safest settings, features that have caused known security issues are also automatically disabled. And HTML5 audio and video, as well as WebGL, become click to play.

    Here’s how to change your security level in Tor Browser:

    1. Click the shield icon in the top-right corner. Select Change…

       Changing security settings in Tor
    2. Choose the security level you wish to change to.

      Tor's security settings

    Only use HTTPS sites

    HTTPS uses a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which encrypts and authenticates information going between a browser and a website, and between servers. HTTPS sites are much more secure than HTTP sites. Never put your personal info into an HTTP site, whether it’s in Tor or on the surface web.

    Don’t reveal personal information

    Don’t enter your personal information. This includes your name, address, email, and phone number. The point of Tor is to remain anonymous — giving up your personal details is risky and rarely necessary on the dark web.

    Don’t download unrecognized files

    Don’t download from untrustworthy sources. Hackers know that Tor is full of curious and unsuspecting users, and have laid many traps with viruses and malware.

    Install antivirus software

    Don’t click suspicious links. Many links on the dark web lead to illegal markets, questionable documents, objectionable sites, or malicious downloads. Getting some of the best free antivirus software can keep you covered in case you make a mistake.

    How to uninstall Tor Browser

    Uninstalling Tor Browser is as easy as deleting it and emptying your recycle bin. Some people get confused when trying to uninstall Tor, since it doesn’t show up in system programs. That’s because Tor is a fully portable, self-contained .exe file. Tor does not make any changes to the Windows Registry, so don’t worry about leaving a trace after you uninstall your Tor Browser.

    Protect your online privacy with AVG Secure VPN

    AVG Secure VPN keeps you hidden no matter your network or browser. Military-grade encryption guards you on public Wi-Fi, and location selection helps you stream the content you want. Eavesdroppers are everywhere, so install AVG Secure VPN to encrypt your connection from beginning to end.

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    Domenic Molinaro