Being Anonymous on the Web: Tor and the Tor Browser

Martin Gschwentner

"Use Tor," Edward Snowden once said to FBI employees on Twitter if they want to keep their private conversations hidden from their employer. And he knows what he's talking about: His disclosure of certain surveillance practices of US intelligence services forced the whistleblower into exile. Data protection activists demand the Nobel Peace Prize for his revelations – some of his opponents want the death penalty.

For journalists and regime critics, using Tor to encrypt messages in an authoritarian regime can make the difference between life and death. Even "normal" people who care about their data protection and privacy should look into the many different methods of anonymization on the Web. And there are few apps that anonymize as effectively as Tor.

What Is Tor?

Tor is short for "The Onion Router" and was originally developed as a way for the US Navy to keep their communication secret. It's a program that anonymizes your communication on the internet by routing your data through a network of nodes, called Tor relays.

Picture this: You want to send someone a letter. You write the letter and put the recipient's address on the envelope, but instead of dropping it off at the post office, you put the letter in a document box that only one person has a key to. That box you put in an even bigger box that another person only has a key to. Repeat this process a few more times. Your letter and its contents are now protected on several layers according to the principle of asymmetrical encryption – like the layers of an onion.

This is how Tor protects your communication on the internet.

Tor vs. Tor Network vs. Tor Browser?

The term "Tor" has been used for different components of the same system and this can lead to some confusion. It's actually quite simple:

Tor is the name of the program itself.

The Tor Network describes the network of Tor relays operated by volunteers around the world.

The Tor Browser is, in principle, a pre-configured version of Mozilla Firefox that aims for total data protection.

That browser is the best known Tor component. This what people usually mean when they talk about Tor.

The Difference Between Tor and a VPN

Tor is not the only option you have if you want to keep your data traffic on the internet anonymous. You might be thinking of another three-letter acronym: a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

A VPN reroutes your data through an encrypted server operated by third-party providers and protects your privacy. The difference to Tor is that a VPN is run by a single company that you have to trust, whereas Tor is run on a massive network that protects your data in multiple layers.

There are numerous VPN providers, so a direct comparison of both anonymization methods is difficult. Still, there are a few general differences you should keep in mind when deciding on what you should use.

The pros and cons of Tor:

free of charge, no ads

it pretty much cannot be turned off as it's run by a network of volunteers

effectively hides your IP address from the websites you're using

based off of Firefox and is therefore easy to use

the layer structure makes it slower than VPNs

the encryption does have weaknesses (i.e. starting node)

the use of it alone can make some regimes suspicious

you're completely dependent on the Tor browser for all your online activities

The pros and cons of VPNs:

faster than Tor

efficient encryption

not browser-dependent

usually costs money; if not, they're financed by ads

VPN providers could produce and store protocols and then hand them over to authorities

every VPN provider is different; unlike Tor, you have to trust one single entity

Tor or VPN?

Every VPN provider is different, so it's hard to make a general statement. However, there are some things to consider:

For ultra-sensitive communication, – like that of journalists, whistleblowers or regime critics – Tor can be vital. For a more general protection of data, a VPN usually suffices. If you consider using a VPN, you should research the providers you're potentially going to trust with your data. We've looked at a number of different VPN providers – you can check out the results here.

Of course, you can combine Tor with a VPN. This can maximize your security, but it also comes with another set of challenges.

Browser alternatives that offer maximum security

Tor is not the only browser with a focus on data protection and security. No other browser has the wide-ranging "Onion Routing" network Tor has – but still, it's worth your time to check out our big privacy browser comparison.

How Do I Use the Tor Browser

If you've decided to use the Tor browser to protect your communication, you can download it at the Tor Project website. The browser is available for Windows, MacOS, and GNU/Linux in 25 languages.

1. Choose the destination folder where you want to save your Tor files and install the program like any other.

2. Open the now installed application. If you want to make certain settings, like using Tor with a proxy server, click on "Configure". One click on "Connect" – and you should be connected to the Tor network.

3. When starting the browser, you'll have to be a little patient for Tor to establish a connection to the network. During the very first start, that process can take several minutes. Once the connection has been established, the browser will boot up in seconds.

4. You're now online with Tor. Because the browser is based off of Mozilla's Firefox, using it is pretty straightforward.

5. Use the security settings to find the ideal balance between data protection and functionality. The Tor browser is pre-configured to the lowest of its three security levels (compared to other browsers, that's still a lot of protection). A higher security level can, for example, interfere with JavaScript and HTML5 media.

Conclusion: Tor - More Than Just a Browser

Tor is a program a network and a browser all in one. Moreover, Tor is greater than the sum of its parts: Anyone who's ever considered learning more about Tor has been thinking about their data protection and how they use the internet.

Tor is an effective way of regaining your anonymity on the Web. It might not be the most practical, especially in comparison to a VPN, but there many other methods to stay anonymous on the internet.

Edward Snowden's call to use Tor shouldn't fall on deaf ears, especially among those who need to communicate particularly sensitive information.

Author (German Version): Martin Gschwentner
Martin Gschwentner majored in American Studies and Media Studies in Germany, the USA and France and works as a freelance editor in Paris. He is a doctoral student at the Institute for English and American Studies at the University of Paris Diderot, where he is researching the influence of money on US politics. On he writes about IT security, data protection and software for the self-employed and small businesses.
English Translator & Editor: D Bare
Other languages:
Deutsch Italiano