To some people, Tor is like a portal into a dark, evil dimension called the Dark Web, where anything goes, and danger is everywhere. But the reality is more banal than that. Tor is a network which allows users to surf the web privately, safe from the prying eyes of governments, criminals or advertisers.

Using Tor generally requires users to download the Tor Browser, but is this increasingly popular privacy tool as effective and safe as its promoters claim? This article will look in more detail about this portal into the Dark Web, and whether it’s the online security option you’ve been searching for.

What is the Tor Browser and why would you use it?

The Tor Browser was created by members of the Tor Network as a way to navigate the network they created. For those who don’t know, Tor means “the Onion Router” and uses a vast network of “relays” to bounce traffic around the world, making it virtually impossible to track and identify what users are doing.

Not unlike in a Virtual Private Network Tor uses layers of encryption to bundle up data, and these layers are “peeled off” as the packets bounce around the web. Hence the name. By the time data reaches its destination, the layers have all been removed, along with any information about where it came from and who sent it.

The browser is a front end for this network of relays, and is based upon Mozilla Firefox. But it’s not just a conventional Firefox build. The Tor Browser features add-ons like NoScript, which heavily screens any Flash or Javascript applications. It also uses HTTPS Everywhere, ensuring that every page the user visits has HTTPS encryption, making web tracking even tougher.

Is Tor Browser legal?

Tor has been associated with some pretty dark activities, including child sexual exploitation and arms selling. But does that make the Tor Browser illegal?

The browser itself is an open source development project which provides access to the Tor network. What users do with that network could involve illegal activity, but that is not seen as a reason to outlaw the browser. After all, many people use Chrome to carry out illegal actions such as streaming sports, but there is no campaign to ban Google’s browser.

So the answer to the question is Tor Browser legal is yes, it definitely is. If you intend to use it to protect your online security you don’t need to have any concerns about the intervention of law enforcement bodies. Unless you use it for something they might be interested in, that is a different discussion. And even then, the security features of Tor may well make the police powerless.

How safe is Tor Browser?

This is the most important question of all. The only reason the Tor Browser exists is to facilitate safe internet usage. The team behind Tor looked at existing security options such as anonymous browsing, proxies or VPNs and decided to create something more robust to protect their anonymity. So in practice, Tor should be ultra safe. But how safe is Tor browser in reality? Let’s have a look.

Does Tor provide safe anonymity for users?

Most importantly, we need to know whether a Tor browser download is the best way to ensure safe, anonymous web surfing. There are two important things to remember here. Firstly, the web of relays which makes up the Tor Network are able to almost totally anonymize packets of data sent across them. This makes sniffing IP addresses and session hijacking much harder, and surveillance agencies will have a hard time seeing what you send.

But there’s a second thing to bear in mind. When data passes through the Tor Network, it has to enter and leave it somewhere. And these exit nodes are key vulnerabilities for Tor users to know about. For instance, web sites where you enter payment information are very vulnerable, which is why Tor included HTTPS Everywhere. HTTPS provides some protection, but doesn’t stop snoopers knowing that you are using Tor.

In fact, it’s very hard to hide Tor usage from anyone who is determined enough to find out. And some exit nodes may also be compromised. There have long been rumours about governments actually running these nodes, allowing bulk collection of data.

While this data probably won’t identify users, it’s still a long way from total protection. However, the Tor Project is well aware of this and take regular steps to refine their security measures.

Is Tor safe from viruses and malware?

Viruses could be one of the Achilles Heels of the Tor Browser. As the browser is based around Firefox, it tends to have the same vulnerabilties as Mozilla’s software. The same risky extensions people install on standard Firefox can be added to Tor, such as free VPNs like Hola or rating apps like Web of Trust. So be careful about customizing your Tor Browser setup with extra add-ons. They could open the door to surveillance and viruses.

Tor also has access to both the Dark Web and the “clear” web. So when you are browsing the web, you will face exactly the same malware risks as with ordinary websites. You can still click on risky attachments or agree to download strange .exe files offered by attack sites. And you can still become infected. There’s nothing special about Tor Browser in this regard. So the answer to the question is Tor safe from viruses is no – unless you add virus protection to the mix.

A history of security issues, and fixes

Over the years, Tor has been the target of numerous attacks. That’s not exactly surprising, given its popularity with hackers. And it’s often had a healthy effect, stimulating the developers to come up with fixes. But the list is long, and could worry some people.

We’ve already mentioned the dangers associated with exit nodes, but they aren’t alone. Traffic analysis attacks are also possible, Bittorrent users could fall prey to “bad apple attacks”, and Heartbleed bugs have also been identified, causing mass disruption.

These issues haven’t dented Tor’s popularity as a marketplace for goods or a privacy solution, but some have responded negatively. For example, Dark Web marketplac Agora suspended sales permanently in 2016 after identifying a major Tor vulnerability. For them, anonymity could no longer be assured, although the majority of users continue to trust the network.

How to get up to date information about Tor security

If you are worried about Tor’s anonymity, the state of play with exit nodes, and risks attached to viruses, you’re in luck: so are thousands of other privacy-conscious people. And they have gathered together to provide forums to discuss issues with Tor Browser safety.

When you want to ask is Tor Browser safe, Reddit is always a good place to start. The “front page of the Internet” is always full of people using Tor to express opinions and share files, and many of them are excellent sources of technical knowledge.

Another good place to look for the latest information is the Tor Blog, which runs a regular series of security updates.

How to make Tor Browser safe to use

Given the documented security vulnerabilities within the Tor network and associated with the Tor Browser, it’s important to take whatever steps you can to stay safe. So here are a few things to think about if you’re concerned about how to make Tor browser safe.

    • Fine tune your Operational Security – Many experts see OpSec as the major vulnerability for Tor users. By this we mean ensuring that key identity information such as payment details, IP addresses, MAC address and your OS are shielded and not transmitted at any point. And it also means making extra sure that your passwords are fit for purpose.
    • Resist the urge to stock up on extensions – As we’ve already noted, the Firefox-based Tor browser download can become vulnerable due to toxic add-ons, or add-ons which conflict with the way Tor works. So try to keep your browser set up as clean as possible.
    • Avoid torrenting apps while you use Tor – Torrenting apps have been identified as a key Tor vulnerability. And when you use software like uTorrent it’s fairly easy to track what you are downloading or uploading. So don’t assume having Tor will allow you to kickstart a torrent binge.
    • Use a VPN with Tor Browser – Combining VPNs with Tor is one way to add an extra layer of anonymity. Importantly, with a reliable VPN installed, it will be much more difficult for your ISP or law enforcement agencies to detect that you are logged on to Tor. Your VPN could probably find out, but with reputable VPNs that won’t be a major concern – at least nowhere near as worrying as the FBI being able to track when you use Tor.

Browse the web safely and anonymously – but always take care

The Tor Browser is one of the most powerful privacy tools around, but it’s not flawless. If you choose to use Tor for secure browsing, be sure to install a Tor-friendly VPN like CyberGhost or NordVPN. Be sure to install a safe Tor from the Tor Project, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you have any questions about is Tor Browser safe, Reddit and other tech forums are there to help.

Together, web users are constantly working to ensure our collective security, and Tor is often an essential tool. Just bear its limitations in mind, and follow sound security guidelines whenever you fire it up.