To Tor or Not to Tor: Understanding the Web Browser that Everyone’s Talking About

April 26th, 2021

If you want to browse the web incognito or anonymously, Tor should be your browser of choice.  There was a time when Tor was a name that was only known and understood by the tech savvy amongst us. But things have changed, and quite a few people use Tor to browse the web and keep their web activities a secret.

However, like everything else associated with anonymous web browsing, Tor also comes with a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts.’ It is always a good idea to get some clarity on what this internet privacy tool is all about before you trust its ability to conceal your online activities.

What is Tor and how does it work?

Some of the most innovative technologies that have found everyday use were actually developed with defense in mind, such as GPS, microwave oven, the internet, virtual reality, drones, and more.

Add Tor to this list.

It was originally developed by experts working in the U.S Naval Research Lab to create secure internet connections that safeguard internet communications, wherein people monitoring that internet connection could not track the communications taking place over the internet. Achieving higher levels of privacy was the driving force for developing Tor and onion routing. Traffic is routed through multiple servers and secured with encryption.

Tor works by encrypting traffic and pushing it through diverse Tor relays within the network.

Let’s understand this in a little more detail.

Let’s say you are visiting a website using a normal web browser. In this case, a direct TCP connection is established with the website server. If there is someone monitoring your internet connection or the website server, they will have no difficulty identifying your IP address or that of the server. This is possible through IP packet header inspection. Yes, if the communication between you and the website server is HTTPS encrypted, it is nonsense to the person trying to read the message, but it is important to remember that the person (who might very well be cybercriminals) with a nefarious agenda will have discovered that you are trying to communicate with a specific website. Sometimes, this limited information is enough for experienced cybercriminals to create trouble.

If you visit a website using the Tor browser, your communication with the website server is hidden as there is no direct communication. It’s a zig-zag communication that passes through a random set of three Tor nodes, creating a connection the path of which is impossible to decipher. The website server sends its response back through the same path, which makes it difficult to track.

Is Tor difficult to use?

Tor is very easy to use.

All you need to do is download it and use it like you would any other browser like Chrome, Firefox, Opera, or Microsoft Edge. You will immediately see that its UI and UX resembles commonly used browsers, so there isn’t steep learning curve. However, you might experience a slower internet browsing speed on Tor, though the browser has gotten faster over time.

You might encounter one major hindrance while using Tor: there are some websites that have blocked Tor traffic, though these are very few and far between.

Tor isn’t necessarily something you will have to learn to use. You can get started with it immediately after downloading it on your device. All the complex magic happens in the backend where the browser is hard at work giving you anonymity on the internet.

Should you use Tor?

This is both an easy question and a difficult one. If you want to keep your internet activities private and want to browse the internet keeping prying eyes at bay, Tor is not a bad idea. People also use Tor if they are living in an area that has censored certain websites, and also by journalists and activists who are living in countries with strict censorship of the internet. There is also a group of users who wishes to conduct their activities in anonymity while visiting sites that are a part of the Dark Web who also use Tor.

This brings us to the dark side of Tor. There are certain websites that are hosted on Tor which offer services that can only be described as illegal. These are often criminal sites and the services they offer are used by people with criminal intent. Think in terms of sites selling illegal drugs, arms, child pornography and more along the same lines. When using Tor, irrespective of whether you are doing it with normal intentions, you are using software that is also being used by criminals to hide their identity and conduct criminal activities.

Also, it is imperative that you do not use Tor with abandon thinking no one can track you. For more on this topic, this article about Tor by Paul Ducklin with Naked Security offers a great explanation.

Always think from a security perspective

Do not underestimate the intent of cybercriminals and their ability to circumvent even the most complex technologies that disguise your location and being able to track your internet activity. It’s imperative that you take the necessary steps to stay safe while browsing the web and safeguarding your PCs, Macs, and mobile devices. Sophos Home is an advanced antivirus solution purpose-built for home computers, offering enterprise-grade security against both known and unknown threats.

Artificial intelligence with deep learning detects and blocks known and unknown malware in milliseconds, and its predictive and intuitive capabilities evaluates files before execution to stop sophisticated attacks. This and many other features configured to deliver the highest level of security against a growing threat landscape and evolving threats, makes Sophos Home a must-deploy on your home computers.

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