Last update: 05.31.2019
To some people, Tor browser is like a portal into the evil Dark Web where anything goes and there are dangers everywhere. But is Tor browser safe to use? This article will look in more detail whether it’s the online security option you’ve been searching for.
What is Tor Browser?
Tor Browser was created as a way to navigate the Tor Network by the network creators themselves. Tor stands for “the Onion Router” because it uses a vast network of “relays” to bounce traffic around the world, making it virtually impossible to track and identify what users are doing.
And, before you ask: yes, Tor Browser is definitely legal. 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, then that’s a different discussion.
How to make Tor Browser safe to use
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. And this is a great start, but Tor Browser can always be made much safer.
Given the some 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 identifying 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 setup as clean as possible.
- Avoid torrenting 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 kick-start a torrent binge.
- Use a VPN with Tor Browser. Combining a good VPN with Tor is one of the best ways to add an extra layer of security and privacy. Most 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.
Best VPNs to use with Tor Browser
If you choose to use Tor for secure browsing, be sure to install a Tor-friendly VPN to complement its safety features. Here are the best VPNs to use with Tor Browser:
- Watertight security
- Massive server list
- Great for streaming
- Very good for torrenting
- Very fast
- 24/7 customer support
- Excellent security
- Largest server list on the market
- Awesome for Netflix
- Good for torrenting
- Very easy to use
- Affordable prices
3. Astrill VPN
- Incredibly fast
- Solid security
- Awesome for Netflix
- Great for torrenting
- Mostly privacy-friendly
- Good multiplatform support
How safe is Tor Browser?
When we take an in-depth look at the safety of Tor Browser, there are some important questions we need to consider.
#1 Does Tor Browser provide anonymity for users?
Most importantly, we need to know whether Tor Browser is the best way to ensure safe, anonymous web surfing. There are two essential things to remember here:
- The web of relays is 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.
- 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, websites 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’re using Tor.
It’s tough 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 rumors about governments actually running these nodes, allowing for bulk data collection.
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 takes regular steps to refine its security measures.
This is the time to emphasize that Tor is great for anonymity but not that great for spoofing your IP address and pretending to be from a certain country. For that, you’ll need a good VPN, like ExpressVPN.
#2 Is Tor Browser safe from viruses and malware?
Viruses could be one of the Achilles Heels of the Tor Browser. As the browser is based on Firefox, it tends to have the same vulnerabilities as Mozilla’s software. The same risky extensions people install on the 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 browser has access to both the Dark Web and the “clear” web. So when you are browsing the web, you will face 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 of whether Tor is safe from viruses is no – unless you add virus protection to the mix.
#3 Does Tor Browser have a history of security issues?
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 marketplace 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.
For better security, you’ll need to use a good VPN with a strong reputation for security such as NordVPN.
#4 How to get updates about Tor Browser’s 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 know if Tor Browser is 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.
Tor vs VPN: comparing the two
When you look at the two (Tor browser vs VPN) you find that there are differences you should be aware of.
- On the flip side, a VPN service protects all of the user’s online activities, including their standard web browser as well as other apps.
- When it comes to price, Tor is available free of charge, while VPNs come in free versions and paid versions.
- VPN and Tor work under different circumstances. For example, only government approved VPNs can work in China. So, not all VPNs will be able to be used by users in China. China also blocks Tor relays meaning that users won’t necessarily be able to use Tor in the country either.
A VPN service protects all user’s web activities including standard web browser as well as activities in other apps.
- If you are transmitting ultra-sensitive data, Tor in conjunction with a good VPN is the best choice. It is an option for those willing to sacrifice internet speed for data security.
- When it comes to just the VPN, it offers a balance between privacy, ease of use, and speed.
- Tor is often blocked by websites so it is not appropriate for peer-to-peer web browsing and file sharing.
Tor Browser is one of the most powerful privacy tools around, but it’s not flawless. Therefore, you should install a safe version from the Tor Project, and don’t be afraid to ask questions on Reddit or the Tor Blog.
Finally, you should use a VPN to cover the weak spots of Tor Browser and ensure the maximum security and privacy.