What is The Onion Router (Tor)? Is Tor Safe?

Last updated: 2022/04/14
Cybersecurity7 minutes

Tor stands for The Onion Router, which is a non-profit organization that invests in privacy and anonymity over the internet. The general idea is to prevent third parties from monitoring your activity on the internet, may it be government agencies or corporations. It works by relaying your internet traffic over several servers from around the globe. It makes it difficult for interested parties to track online browsing. Even your ISP cannot see your internet traffic, they are only aware of the fact that you are using Tor.

Online communities and activists around the globe welcome technologies that enable internet privacy, Tor however, is under controversy. The main reason is that Tor allows criminal parties to utilize it for a multitude of illegal activities. Total anonymity means law agencies do not catch criminals nor serve them justice, while various parties raise questions about who uses Tor, governments around the world have gone as far as to accuse Tor of being a blockade; of protecting criminal activity.

Is Tor safe?

So, is Tor Safe? Is it a secure, reliable network? To answer the question: Yes, it is safe. The Onion Router is a pain for government agencies to navigate through, despite having some of the best resources available to them.

But it is not all about criminal activity either. In fact, Tor has been used far better than people realize. Journalists, people evading censorship, political activists, and privacy concerned folks from around the world use it. In authoritarian countries where privacy on the internet is a pipe dream, censorship is rampant. Tor is a godsend. Therefore, there is no doubt that Tor can provide some of the best internet privacy has to offer.

Advantages of Tor

Using Tor has many benefits. Starting from the basics, the Tor Browser deletes browsing history and cookies automatically after every session of use. Secondly, Tor prevents online websites from tracking you and your internet browsing directly. Since Tor navigates your internet traffic through three different “relays” or servers. That is, it becomes exceedingly difficult for third parties to monitor your internet traffic. It acts as a tunnel between two points, prohibiting anyone from snooping in between. Other conventional browser, be it Edge, Chrome, or Firefox cannot achieve this.

Thirdly, it hides your IP address. As mentioned earlier, Tor directs your internet traffic through multiple servers from around the globe. The benefit of this is that your internet traffic goes from one server to another. The server that comes next only knows the IP address of the server that came before it. This way, your IP address is anonymized and thus, disguised.

If you live in a country that censors the Internet, Tor is of immense benefit to you. As mentioned above, Tor routes your connection through its servers, bypassing any restrictions set by your government. A crucial positive aspect of Tor is that it is completely free. Set up by a non-profit, The Onion Router does not charge you on a subscription basis nor requires you to pay for the technology it offers. Giving Tor a try will not leave you with any buyer’s remorse.

Disadvantages of Tor

While The Onion Router clearly has an extensive list of advantages, it also has many disadvantages. For starters, Tor is terribly slow compared to other conventional browsers. This drop-in speed occurs because Tor relays your internet traffic through several servers to disguise your internet identity, the privacy comes at the cost of speed, unfortunately. This makes Tor unattractive for the average joe to use as a regular browser while ensuring privacy at the same time. This is also why the Tor Browser is not as popular as other browsing options such as Firefox.

Built on trust and commitment, the Tor network requires volunteers all over to world. The Tor network run relays for the network to function. This decentralized aspect of Tor makes it less dependable in case of a network breakdown. Since volunteers run these relays, they are unreliable and often lack the fast internet connections required for the modern internet to function. Volunteers may also not have the financial or labor muscle to keep their relays up. It is also known that Tor relays are, in some cases, set up by government agencies. It means that your data is not entirely secure using Tor’s relay network, neither is your internet access.

Depending on your country of residence, Tor may also ring an alarm bell for government agencies looking for suspicious actors. Hence, they may put you under surveillance. That is, Tor users usually are the most likely candidates for performing illegal activities online.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It works by redirecting all your data through a server hosted by a VPN host. The server sends internet traffic onwards, as per your browsing. The internet traffic that sent through a VPN uses encryption, using a secret encryption key. Without it, attempting to brute force through to monitor your data might as well be impossible.

A VPN also prevents geographical boundaries from hindering your access to the internet, as it changes your IP address thanks to the remote server. So, you can finally watch your favorite TV show that is for some reason censored by your government. For instance, you could unblock Netflix if Netflix simply does not have it available in your country.

Tor vs. VPN: which one is better?

The Onion Router on the other hand is meant to be a completely anonymous experience. Considering how websites use cookies and search histories to track you, Tor guarantees your anonymity by deleting this information as soon as you close the browser. But this information is useful. If you are more interested in circumventing geo-restrictions and less interested in an anonymous online experience.

VPNs instead are an encryption method for a user to make their connection more secure, using a remote server to access the rest of the internet and hiding his/her identity. The two do not have a direct comparison, because they are meant for different things.

However, VPNs are consistent in terms of internet speeds and the connection’s reliability due to well-established servers around the globe. VPN services like VPN Proxy Master make sure that you receive an interrupted, secure, and reliable connection thanks to their well-established servers. This results in faster speeds than using the Tor Browser. And these fast internet speeds result in VPNs having a clear advantage.

The Tor browser on the other hand has a reputation for malicious users and their evil intent. News agencies and modern media often cites it as a hub of illegal practices accuse it of containing sensitive, typically banned content. Using the Tor Browser is not seen as a positive activity, VPNs on the other hand are clear of this social clout.

Bypassing geo-restrictions

Since The Onion Router is more focused on anonymity, you cannot pick what location you want your exit nodes to be in. If you wish to access a website that is only available in the United States. Then, you will find yourself disconnecting and reconnecting to the Onion network until you get an exit node in the United States.

VPNs on the other hand let you pick which country’s servers you are interested in connecting to it. It makes them the preferred choice for bypassing geo-restrictions like those set up by Netflix.

Using a VPN with Tor

While it may seem like an unnecessary step, using Tor on its own is not as safe as you might think. You still need your internet to connect to the Onion network to relay your traffic through it. That means that someone may snoop in on your entry internet traffic and detect your IP address, leading to a compromise of data and a leak.

Even if we presume that Tor is an apex of internet privacy and security; we forget that people using Tor are still visible to ISPs. If you live in an authoritarian country that censors the internet, using Tor would be a giant red flag, drawing extra attention towards you that you can do very well without.

Using a VPN prior to connecting to Tor is a terrific way to solve this problem. Your ISP will not know that you are using Tor, which will not divert unwanted attention towards you. Since a VPN encrypts your internet traffic as mentioned prior, your ISP will not be able to tell if you are using Tor or browsing YouTube for ASMR videos with your VPN. You can compare different Tor and choose the best one for yourself.

Using VPN Proxy Master to connect to Tor

A service like VPN Proxy Master will redirect your requests to their servers before sending them off to the Onion network. Hiding the fact that you are using Tor from your ISPs and any men-in-the-middle interested in your browsing activities.

But government agencies and people who have access to your local network are not the only problems, another major security breach can happen at the entrance and exit relays for the Onion network. As they can potentially expose your online activities to someone who has set up these relays. Using a VPN Proxy Master before you connect to Tor adds in an extra layer of security that is independent of Tor itself.

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