Anonymity Online: Tor and the Tor Browser

Martin Gschwentner

"Use Tor". Edward Snowden gave this simple suggestion via Twitter to FBI employees whose private communications had been read by their employer, and he definitely knows what he's talking about. Snowden's disclosure of the surveillance practices of certain US intelligence services forced the whistleblower into exile. Data protection activists argue that he should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, while some of his detractors would prefer to see him sentenced to death.

For journalists and regime critics living under an authoritarian system, using Tor to encrypt messages can be a matter of life and death. However, anyone who cares about data protection and privacy online should be aware of the different options available for making your digital activity anonymous. And there are few apps that accomplish this as effectively as Tor.

What Is Tor?

Tor is an acronym for "The Onion Router" and was originally developed as a way for the US Navy to keep their communications secret. The program anonymizes your Internet communications by routing your data through a network of nodes, referred to as Tor relays.

Imagine that you want to send a letter to someone. You compose your message and write the recipient's address on the envelope. However, instead of dropping it off at the post office or in a postbox, you put the letter in a box that only one person has a key for. This box is inside of an even larger box that, once again, only a single person can unlock. Imagine several more such boxes (each containing all of the boxes that came before it). In this manner, your letter and its contents are now protected by multiple layers, according to the principle of asymmetrical encryption, similar to the layers of an onion.

This is how Tor protects your communications online.

Tor vs. Tor Network vs. Tor Browser?

"Tor" has come to refer to several components of the same system, causing a fair deal of confusion among the general public. With that said, the differences between each are quite simple:

Tor is the name of the program.

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 to provide maximum data protection.

This last component (Tor Browser) is the best known of the three and what people usually mean when they talk about Tor.

The Difference Between Tor and a VPN

Tor is not the only option available for anonymizing your Internet data traffic. In fact, another three-letter acronym, VPN (Virtual Private Network) offers something very similar.

To protect your privacy, a VPN reroutes your data through an encrypted server operated by a third-party provider, which is typically an individual company that you trust with your data. In contrast, Tor is a massive network that encrypts your data through multiple layers.

Owing to the sizable number of VPN providers, directly comparing the two methods is difficult. With that said, there are a few general differences to be aware of when deciding on which to use.

The Pros and Cons of Tor:

Free, no ads

Cannot be shuttered as it's run by a large network of volunteers

Effectively hides your IP address from websites you visit

Based upon Firefox and therefore, easy to use

Slower than VPNs owing to its layer structure

Encryption weaknesses (i.e. starting node)

Usage can raise suspicion among authorities

Requires the usage of Tor browser for all activities online

The Pros and Cons of VPNs:

Faster than Tor

Efficient encryption

Not reliant on a single browser

Usually require paid subscriptions; if not, they're financed by ads

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

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

Tor or VPN?

Generalizing is difficult because each VPN provider is different, however, there are some things worth considering:

For ultra-sensitive communication, such as those of journalists, whistleblowers, or regime critics, Tor can be vital. However, VPNs are usually sufficient for more everyday data protection purposes. If using a VPN, you should research providers since you'll be trusting them with your data. We've looked at a number of different VPN providers, and you can check out our results here.

Of course, you can combine Tor with a VPN. While this maximizes your security, it also creates its own set of challenges.

Browser Alternatives That Offer Maximum Security

Tor is not the only browser that focuses on data protection and security. While no other browser can lay claim to as wide-ranging a network as Tor's "Onion Routing", it's a good idea to check out our comprehensive comparison of privacy browsers.

How Do I Use the Tor Browser

If you've decided to go with Tor Browser for protecting your communications, you can download it from the Tor Project's website. The browser is available for Windows, macOS, and GNU/Linux in 25 languages.

1. To start, select the destination folder where you want Tor to be created on your computer, installing it like any other program.

2. Once installed, open the application. If you want to manage certain settings, like using Tor with a proxy server, click on "Configure". If not, simply click on "Connect", which should link you to the Tor network.

3. When starting Tor, you'll have to be a little patient while the service connects to the network. During the first session, this process can take several minutes. As soon as a connection has been established, the browser will load within a few seconds.

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

5. You can find the ideal balance between data protection and functionality by adjusting the security settings. Tor Browser is pre-configured to the lowest of its three security levels (compared to other browsers, this is still highly secure, however). 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, it's greater than the sum of its parts: Anyone who's ever considered learning more about Tor has certainly wondered about their data protection and Internet usage.

Tor offers an effective way of regaining your anonymity online even though it might not be the most practical, especially in comparison to a VPN. It goes without saying that there exist many other methods of staying anonymous when surfing the Web.

Edward Snowden's suggestion 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 EXPERTE.com he writes about IT security, data protection and software for the self-employed and small businesses.
Translator & Editor: D Bare
Other languages:
Deutsch Italiano 
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