Is the Tor Browser Really Private? [Privacy Features and Concerns]

Daniel Attoe
Daniel Attoe

Updated · Jan 26, 2023

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The Tor Browser helps users stay anonymous online. It provides protection from being tracked by internet service providers and hackers, even by law enforcement agencies and governments. 

But is the Tor browser really private, what exactly is it, and why do people use it? 

For answers to these questions and more, read on. 

What Is the Tor Browser?

The Tor Browser, which stands for “the onion routing,” is a free, open-source tool used for privately surfing the web, which makes it one of the best web browsers.

Tor was originally developed by the US Navy to protect military communications. In fact, the Tor Project is used by the American government to share information anonymously. However, as it’s an open-source tool, it’s also available to the public, and volunteers continue to build the Tor network. 

Is the Tor Browser Safe for the Dark Web?

In addition to its private web browsing, Tor provides anonymity to websites and other servers through its onion services. These services can be accessed through dot-onion addresses, usually via the Tor browser. Onion services route the traffic entirely through the Tor network, so the connection is encrypted end-to-end and thus can’t be tracked.

Therefore, using the Tor Browser for dark web access is the safest choice you can make. After all, Tor is considered to be the dark web’s default browser.

You might be interested our picks for top Dark Web websites.

Does the Tor Browser Hide Your IP?

Our everyday browsers can reveal our IP addresses because they normally make a connection through the ISP to servers on the internet, allowing the servers to see your IP address and your location. With the Tor network, you can avoid this, as Tor hides your IP from servers.

Tor doesn’t show the end user (your) address. Instead, it gives them the IP address of its own network. This way, you’re completely hidden from the website you’re visiting.

How Does the Tor Browser Work?

When you use the Tor browser, your traffic is routed through three Tor servers known as “nodes” or “relays.” The data is first encrypted and then slowly decoded one layer at a time at different nodes.

The encrypted data then travels through the entry/guard node, several relays, and the exit node without leaving traces of your IP address, but only the IP addresses of the previous and next nodes.

However, at the last node, decryption happens before you reach your destination website, and it can be a potential risk to your privacy.

What Do People Use Tor For?

What first comes to mind is the use of the Tor browser for dark web access, something that people often confuse with illegal activities. While it’s true that people around the world use Tor for illicit purposes, there are many lawful reasons to visit the dark web and even more sensible reasons to surf with the Tor browser.

Here are some of them:

  1. Communicating anonymously - Some people don’t like their online activities being monitored. With Tor, they can hide their location, so when they post or discuss sensitive issues online, no one can reveal their identity. Additionally, people use the Tor browser to access geo-restricted content.
  2. Exposing criminals or corrupt public figures - Journalists around the world, especially those in countries with suppressed freedom of speech, can do their job without being prosecuted with the help of Tor browser. Tor protects journalist’s sources and identities and shields them from potential revenge. 
  3. Organizing demonstrations under authoritarian regimes - without Tor, political dissidents would likely be arrested before protests. Tor is a good choice for those working under dictatorships and need to bypass censorship.
  4. Security testing - cybersecurity professionals test out security protocols by imitating malicious hacker attacks. Moreover, IT developers include Tor testing when creating more secure apps due to Tor’s built-in safety features.

Is the Tor Browser Really Private?

Tor is thought to be a safe way to keep your online privacy while you browse the internet anonymously. But is the Tor browser completely anonymous?

In theory, Tor is safe for private surfing, but it has some issues. Multiple incidents involving Tor’s safety have occurred over the past years.

For example, intelligence agencies have been able to track criminals down by using the Tor network. Hackers consistently try to gain access to the information Tor is hiding and breach its security.

At times, Tor wasn’t as safe as it could be because of inherent flaws in the browser itself, like in the 2017 IP address leak that affected Linux and macOS users due to a bug that has since been resolved.

However, to enhance your online protection and truly stay anonymous online, it’s recommended you use a VPN and reliable antivirus software.

This raises the question of whether the Tor browser is safe without a VPN. While it’s certainly safer to use Tor with the extra layer of encrypted connection that a VPN provides, Tor still provides better protection than any other internet browser.

What Are the Disadvantages of Using Tor?

We’ve mentioned that Tor does come with some drawbacks. Let’s see what these disadvantages are:

Slower Speed Connection

Tor is relatively slower than regular browsers. It makes sure that your web traffic goes through at least three nodes before it gets to where it needs to go. The connection travels farther and longer than usual because the nodes can be spread out far and wide and are often located in different countries.

Additionally, some of the nodes have low bandwidth, and your browsing might go through the slowest nodes. While it is a great encryption technique, it does provide a slower experience. With the Tor browser, it's nearly impossible to download or upload large files, stream videos, or play games.

Vulnerable Anonymity

Although Tor is designed to hide IP addresses, the onion network is vulnerable at its exit nodes. While everything you do on the Tor network is heavily encrypted, the data that reaches the exit node and the website is decrypted. This means that hackers can intercept and steal your information.

The Tor exit nodes are vulnerable to eavesdropping because the traffic passing through is not end-to-end encrypted. Your identity might not be exposed, but other information can be. Therefore, using additional encryption through a VPN provider is recommended.

Blocking of Some Scripts

The slower loading of certain websites is the result of Tor’s slower performance. However, some network administrators block Tor completely. They keep track of and block web traffic coming from Tor exit nodes.

The result is a partially loaded website or an error message telling you that the webpage can’t be opened. One way to avoid this is to mask node usage with a VPN.

Many JavaScript and tracking scripts are also blocked by the Tor browser, which can also make some websites not work. It disables some fonts and images in addition to JavaScript on all sites.

You can whitelist scripts, but it’ll make your connection less secure, and you should blacklist them again when you finish browsing. Even though it is the most user-friendly, this setting provides the lowest level of security.

Limited Security

The Tor browser provides security only on its network. In addition, apps that have built-in Tor access are secure too. This means that other applications that you use on your computer aren’t protected by the Tor network.

What’s more, volunteers work on the Tor network, and they might not have enough funding to run proper maintenance all the time.

Illegal Uses

The Tor network is associated with illegal activities as it’s often used to access the dark web. The notorious Silk Road marketplace for illegal drug sales and similar sites don’t help negative opinions about the Tor network.

But there are good reasons for many Tor users to surf the web in private, especially now when hacker attacks are on the rise.

The Tor network is completely legal in most countries, as long as you don’t use it to do illegal things. No matter what browser you use, you can still get into trouble if you engage in any activity that is against the law, such as drug or weapon trafficking.

However, some countries, like China, have outlawed all forms of anonymous browsing. Venezuela and Russia actively discourage their citizens from using any Tor project software and have shut down its relays.

Additionally, by participating in platforms and pages with illegal activities, you might face legal scrutiny if the activities are tracked back to you. If you want to enhance your online anonymity and escape censorship, you should use a VPN when browsing the Tor network.

Best VPNs for Tor Browser

Since Tor users are still vulnerable to online threats like malware or phishing scams, using Tor with a VPN enhances security by adding another layer of encryption and hiding the fact that you’re using Tor at all. Your chosen VPN provider can only see which sites you visit or what information you transmit. 

It is important to note that not all VPNs out there are suitable for the Tor browser. Ideally, you want a VPN with a zero-logging policy, strong security, fast connection speeds, and other Tor-specific features.

We’ve listed the best VPNs for the Tor browser:

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is safe and easy to use with Tor. It offers an extensive network of 3000+ servers in 94 countries, enabling you to enjoy its benefits without overcrowding. It follows a strict no-logs policy and never records user-identifying data.

What’s more, it has its own onion site where you can sign up anonymously and even pay with Bitcoin.

Security features include robust AES 256-bit, military-grade encryption, protection against IP and DNS leaks, and a kill switch. Additionally, the Lightway protocol will keep speed loss to a minimum while you browse. 

ExpressVPN is compatible with many devices, including iOS and Android phones, and it allows you to connect up to five devices at a time. Even though it’s among the priciest VPNs on the market, ExpressVPN delivers a safe, secure, and fast experience on the Tor network.

CyberGhost VPN

CyberGhost VPN is another excellent choice that works well with the Tor browser. It has one of the largest server networks on the market, with over 9000 servers in almost 100 countries. Its servers are configured to delete your browsing history and data once you log off.

It’s easy to configure, and when you sign up for an account, you’ll be assigned an anonymous ID as an encrypted hashtag so your Tor activity can’t be traced back to you. CyberGhost VPN maintains a no-logs policy and accepts Bitcoin payments for extra privacy.

In terms of security, it offers AES 256-bit encryption, leak protection, and a kill switch in all apps. It also has automatic WiFi protection and blocks trackers. 

If you want to stay invisible but safe and secure on the dark web, you should consider CyberGhost VPN. It has apps for all platforms and systems, offering up to seven connections at the same time.

PIA VPN

PIA VPN collects the minimum amount of usage data and follows a no-traffic-logs policy on all its 29,650+ servers in 84 countries. 

It has a multi-hop feature that routes your traffic through more than one server, making it ideal for browsing on the Tor network. In addition, it offers a unique malware blocker called MACE. Since installing extensions on Tor is not recommended, this alternative will effectively block ads and malicious content.

It offers first-class security features, including military-grade encryption, IP and DNS leak protection, and an automatic kill switch. It maintains solid internet connection speeds even when browsing on the Tor network. Additionally, it lets you configure which traffic you’ll encrypt with its split-tunneling feature.

PIA VPN comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Bottom Line

The Tor browser is a great online privacy tool. It provides access to any website and offers a higher degree of online anonymity compared to other browsers. However, it’s only limited to the Tor network, which means that not all your internet activity is protected. If you want complete privacy, consider combining Tor with a VPN connection.

FAQs.


What is the difference between the Tor browser and a proxy server?

The Tor browser is a free network of nodes that work like proxies for your connection. The connection is then routed through several nodes before reaching its final destination. Proxies generally don’t encrypt your data like Tor does and the proxy’s host can see exactly what you’re doing online.

Is Tor a VPN?

No, Tor is not a VPN. These two operate differently: the Tor browser only encrypts traffic on its decentralized network. The VPN encrypts your entire device using a network of servers maintained by a centralized entity.

Is the Tor browser safe?

If you’re wondering if the Tor browser is really private, you should know that it’s not. However, it’s generally considered secure, thanks to its encryption methods. Tor is not without its flaws, and it exposes its users to some vulnerabilities. Still, compared to your regular browser, Tor will certainly provide more safety.

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Daniel Attoe

Daniel Attoe

Daniel is an Economics grad who fell in love with tech. His love for books and reading pushed him into picking up the pen - and keyboard. Also a data analyst, he's taking that leap into data science and machine learning. When not writing or studying, chances are that you'll catch him watching football or face-deep in an epic fantasy novel.

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