If, like me, you are a privacy advocate in favor of anonymity when it comes to online activity there is a very good chance you will have heard of Tor (The Onion Router) but are wondering what an extremely versatile vegetable has to do with the bountiful, rich internet pickings of personal privacy.
If so, here’s the lowdown on a free software that really does deserve closer inspection along with details of how things can get even better when Tor is used in combination with a well-respected VPN provider.
Tor – The introduction:
Tor began life as a U.S. Navy project aimed at protecting government communications during intelligence operations. It has now mushroomed into a non-profit organization that promotes online privacy. This commitment to personal privacy protection should be applauded.
“The Onion Router” is a reference to the multiple layers of encryption used with this free software package that helps achieve anonymous communication. These layers are instrumental in protecting user privacy. Tor hides the unique, very noticeable internet footprint we would all otherwise leave behind. This process allows you to browse the web and download in anonymity.
No, the Tor browser is not a VPN:
From the last paragraph, you would be forgiven for assuming that Tor is simply a VPN or classify a Tor VPN browser as one and the same thing. It is not, both are very different technologies, although each does achieve private internet browsing.
Important recent Tor update:
Tor has recently released a new security layer and these important advancements are further reasons as to why those interested in online anonymity and personal privacy should strongly consider its use. The new changes include:
- Encryption algorithms
- Improved authentication
- A Redesigned directory system
- In addition, the new onion browser domains have been extended in length. This is to keep onion addresses completely private.
How Tor works and how you should work with it:
To use Tor, you download the software and install the Tor Browser on your chosen device(s). By doing so, you are replacing the browser you normally use for online surfing (i.e. Chrome or Firefox). Once installed and used any activity via the Tor browser becomes private and secure.
A Tor browser gathers your data and puts it into encrypted packets before this data enters the network. It then proceeds to remove the part of the packet which contains information such as:
The reason it does this is that when these individual parts of the packet are revealed they identify the sender.
Once that process is complete Tor then encrypts the remaining bundled information before dispatching the encrypted data through a myriad of different servers or relays. This routing is randomly achieved to ensure it cannot be tracked.
As the packet hits a relay, the relay in question decrypts and re-encrypts just the amount of data that allows it to know where the packet is coming from and where it is going to next. Beyond this, each relay cannot track any further information.
In summary: Using Tor browser functionality conceals your identity due to its ability to successfully transfer your internet activity through random, different servers.
Tor, the Deep Web, and the Dark Web – Not as sinister as many have been lead to believe!
Using an onion browser and relays affords you total security and anonymity from those wishing to track your online activity; think, government agencies, hackers, and advertisers. It is also a gateway allowing access to the Deep Web of which the Dark Web makes up only a small proportion.
Sensational headlines have been made regarding this part of the web, but the reality is that the Deep Web comprises the vast majority of the internet and when I say ‘vast majority’, many estimates put this at 99% of the internet you simply cannot ‘Google’.
Think of the Deep Web as being an iceberg. What users can access via normal web browsers is simply the tip. The remainder of the unquantified amount of information out there is actually what is below and needs such things as onion browser technology to gain access
PLEASE do not assume Tor is simply there for illegal activities:
It would be very wrong for anyone to dismiss Tor browser use as only a breeding ground for illegal activities. This is certainly not the case. Tor is extremely popular with journalists, activists with stories to tell, human rights proponents and those who blow the whistle on illegal governmental or company practices.
It is particularly useful for those who live and work in countries around the globe that have draconian laws relating to heavily restricted access to the internet. As well as hiding a person’s internet activity it is highly effective in bypassing censorship.
If an example of Tor’s use is required then Edward Snowden used it to release damning information. This initially related to the extent of the NSA’s spying tactics on their own citizens but gradually leaked much, much more and also proved that these tactics were certainly NOT restricted to U.S citizen or the government of that country.
Reasons not to use Tor:
Many see the biggest drawback of using Tor in terms of performance. The number of relays your data goes through can make Tor browser activities painfully slow. This is particularly seen for audio and video applications. Meaning the use of onion browser techniques for streaming or downloading can give an unsatisfactory experience.
To overcome this, many people opt to use a VPN or a Tor browser with a built-in VPN.
It should also be said that while using Tor is a huge step in the right direction for securing your online anonymity it still does not give complete invulnerability.
Many technical bods believe the flaw exists due to the fact that at exit nodes it can fairly easily be hacked. This is because the last relay your data hits before its destination can see traffic if the site being used (accessed) does not use SSL techniques. To counter this, HTTPS instead of simple HTTP will also an additional layer of protection although even this is still not completely foolproof.
The final thing to say on this topic is that the long arm and roving eye of government agencies will be aware you are using Tor as an onion browser. While they cannot see what you are accessing, this can still put them on alert.
Tor VPN services:
While the combination of a Tor browser and a VPN can be used the relationship is complex. Basically, you can do Tor over VPN or the opposite; VPN over Tor. Whichever you use there is a large difference between them.
Without getting into deep technicalities there are pros and cons of both. The reality is that whichever of the two you use will result in a significant reduction in performance. This is because both Tor and VPN technologies by nature slow down internet speed, so, by combining the two will make this negative even more noticeable.
Tor over VPN
Using this method means connecting to your Tor VPN provider first, to mask your IP address from your ISP. You then load your Tor browser and connect to the internet. This does not give the security assurances of using end to end encryption provided by a robust VPN service, but if you are set on using Tor the selection of VPN services to complement it is reasonable. After some fairly extensive testing I would recommend the following Tor VPN providers:
VPN over Tor
Using the opposite connection means modifying VPN settings to work with Tor and gives a direct connection to it. The advantage here is that you are ensuring anonymity before going online. Once connected to Tor you then turn on your VPN and this is how to hide IP address. This method of connection is significantly more secure because you are achieving almost 100% anonymity. The restriction is that the only 2 VPN providers who offer this are: AirVPN and BolehVPN.
Tor is good, use of a Tor VPN is even better:
Hopefully, you will see the advantages of using an onion browser in conjunction with a VPN service. It offers much-improved security as well as that all important online anonymity. They are an excellent duo. To further understand the details of Tor VPN providers out there please take a look at the 3 mentioned above. By doing so you can set your standards when considering other service providers.
Despite what government agencies and others may believe, personal privacy and the right to browse anonymously should be your choice. In my opinion, anything that aids this basic right should be investigated and used appropriately.
That’s it for now:
I hope you gleaned some information from this piece and now have a better understanding of Tor. Please don’t forget to keep an eye out for articles I have already written and the regular ones to come. I promise you, none will intentionally lead you up the garden path!