No innovation is without its share of downsides. In the case of the Internet, there’s always the growing concern over sensitive information getting stolen by unscrupulous individuals and organizations. As a result, many people turn to the use of Tor (The Onion Router) to protect themselves and ensure their privacy online. Still, one question remains — is Tor browser safe?
To find the answer, it’s necessary to obtain a good understanding of how Tor browsers work. Only then can you determine whether its enough to protect one’s personal information online. In this article, we’ll go over the following:
What Is a Tor Browser?
A Tor browser is a special type of web browser designed to help users remain anonymous by routing data traffic through the Tor network — a massive network comprised of multiple layers of proxy servers. This makes it very difficult (but not impossible) for unscrupulous individuals and authoritarian organizations to intercept personal information and track your activities online.
Tor browsers work by establishing a random connection to one of the thousands of entry nodes then bouncing user web traffic to a middle relay node. Lastly, all data is then routed to an exit node, which facilitates the connection to the targeted web server (website).
As you might imagine, relaying your website traffic through layer after layer of server nodes makes it extremely difficult to pinpoint your activities online. That said, the Tor network is not without its share of caveats. For one thing, Tor browsers tend to be very slow as data needs to be routed through multiple server nodes. Also, some websites block traffic coming from Tor networks, thereby limiting its use.
Still, if you want to keep your web browsing activities private and away from any prying eyes, then Tor browsers might offer a solution that’s reliable enough for most users. Also, access to Tor services is free. This makes it readily accessible for people whose only concern is to safeguard their personal information.
How Safe Are Tor Browsers?
While Tor browsers offer a compelling solution towards Internet privacy, it’s not infallible. Like any cybersecurity solution, there are vulnerabilities in the Tor network that can be exploited by third-parties. Developers work hard to make Tor browsers as safe as possible and patch vulnerabilities with every iteration. However, there will no doubt be times when developers fall behind, enabling interested third-parties to “connect the dots” so to speak.
A bit of good news is that hacking into the Tor network is no easy feat and requires a significant amount of time and computing resources. Additionally, most cases of Tor vulnerability exploitation is almost always done for a good reason.
Take, for example, the case of Operation Onymous — a Europol operation that led to the arrest of 17 suspects engaged in massive drug trade over the dark web. The syndicate managed thousands of domains for their illicit activities and used Tor to cover their tracks. It is said that Europol and the FBI leveraged specific vulnerabilities in the Tor network to collect evidence and facilitate the arrest. This, however, is mere conjecture as Tor representatives refused to verify the matter.
Now, what about the average user with personal concerns about their Internet privacy? Well, as long as you’re not doing anything that is of interest to the Europol or the FBI, then you should be fine. Tor browsers are more than capable of providing average users with a measure of online anonymity. Such actions are generally impenetrable to all but the most determined cybercriminals and data miners.
Of course, if you’re not comfortable knowing that the government and your ISP can monitor your web traffic if they wanted to, then there are ways of bolstering the privacy protection that the Tor network offers. Combining the use of Tor browsers with other data security measures can be an excellent solution for ensuring total privacy online.
Can I Use a VPN With Tor?
Indeed you can, and a VPN (virtual private network) service is the most straightforward and convenient tool that you can use to augment the security features of your Tor browser. Unlike the Tor browser, VPNs not only route your web traffic to a proxy server but encrypts it as well.
Most reputable VPN service providers use AES 256 data encryption, which is widely regarded as unbreakable by major banks and military organizations. Hence using a Tor browser with VPN can make it all the more difficult (if not impossible) for any third-party to find you and intercept sensitive information online.
Another good reason to use a VPN with Tor is that it allows users to bypass blocking restrictions on the Internet. Hence if there’s a particular website or content that you can’t access with a Tor browser alone, you can use an excellent VPN service as a workaround.
Best VPNs That Work With Tor
At this point, you might be wondering — what VPN service should you use in conjunction with your Tor browser to ensure total privacy online? You will find that there a tonne of options out there and not all of them will be suitable for your needs. As a matter of fact, many VPNs don’t work with Tor browsers at all.
If you’re looking to get started with an excellent VPN service that will let you have a safe Tor browser experience, then we recommend the following:
NordVPN offers one of the best options for combining the use of Tor and VPN networks thanks to a feature known as “Onion (Tor network) over VPN.” Using the latter, web traffic is routed to one of NordVPN’s servers then automatically forwards them to the onion network. This spares the users the trouble of downloading and installing a Tor browser on their computer or mobile device.
CyberGhost is a popular VPN service comprised of more than 2900 VPN servers spread across 59 countries. They are one of the few VPN services that are compatible with Tor browsers and other proxy networks.
Surfshark is another viable candidate for a “VPN over Tor” setup. They currently operate more than 1040 VPN servers across 61+ countries and works well with the Onion network. That said, the process isn’t automated, so you’ll have to use and run your Tor browser after enabling their VPN service.
ProtonVPN is one of the few VPN service providers that employ a feature called “Tor over VPN.” With it, users can encrypt all of their web traffic from a VPN server and through the Onion network. As a result, user IP address and other personal information are kept hidden from third parties.
Hotspot Shield is one of the more popular VPN services on the market, with over 500 million active users around the world. Like all other VPN services on this list, Hotspot Shield works well with Tor browsers and can help users become genuinely anonymous online.
ExpressVPN is one of the more notable options when it comes to the use of a VPN with Tor browsers. This is because they went through the trouble of creating their onion service, resulting in faster browsing speeds for Tor users. ExpressVPN also hinders exit node tracking, which is a typical problem for most other VPN services.
Summary: Is TOR safe?
Tor browsers are a remarkable tool that has contributed much to the fight for Internet freedom and privacy. That said, the Onion network isn’t perfect, and it’s still possible for third-parties to monitor your activities. If you can’t stomach the possibility that your ISP, businesses, and government agencies might be keeping tabs on your online activities, then you owe it to yourself to find better ways to protect yourself and become truly anonymous on the Internet.
Simply put, the combined use of VPNs and Tor browsers can help you cover your tracks better. In doing so, you’d be able to severely limit what little information that a third-party might uncover about your online activities. For many people, this is what it means to obtain peace of mind and become fully anonymous over the Internet.