If you’ve picked up a magazine or watched the news recently, you have probably heard of Tor, but you might be confused about what it is. Tor stands for The Onion Router. Using the process of onion routing, Tor keeps you (almost) anonymous online.
While you can use Tor to browse any website out there, most people use it to access the deep web. The deep web refers to unindexed websites that you can’t discover using your standard search engines, like Google. This is the opposite of the surface web, which is the web that you normally access.
Let’s take a closer look at how Tor works. Then, let’s look at why you need a Tor proxy if you’re going to be truly anonymous.
How Tor Works
Tor helps people browse anonymously by routing traffic through the Tor network. Volunteers from all around the world run relays. The network randomly pushes the traffic through the relays, making it difficult to trace. Finally, the traffic exits the relay and arrives at its destination.
This accomplishes two things. First, it hides your activity from your internet service provider, as well as from anyone else monitoring your activity. They won’t be able to tell where you have gone or what sites you have accessed.
Second, it hides your identity from the websites you access. Instead of seeing your IP address, the site will information related to the exit node. This won’t have anything to do with you.
You in might think that the relay will know your identity, but that isn’t the case, either. All of the traffic in the Tor network is encrypted, so the relays aren’t able to decipher the information. They are just passing encrypted information on to the next relay. The relays don’t have any idea what the information is or where it is going. They are just one relay among a chain of relays sending out encrypted information.
Still confused? Let’s look at an example.
Let’s say that you download the Tor client and then use it to access Google. Your ISP won’t be able to tell who you are. Instead, it will see encrypted Tor traffic. You will continue to travel through the network as encrypted Tor traffic until you make it to the exit node.
The exit nodes drop you off at Google’s front door. Google will get all of its information from the exit node, so if that exit node is located in North Dakota, that is where Google will think you’re from. If it’s located in Germany, that’s where it will think you are from. It can be located anywhere in the world, and your destination site will think that is your location, as well.
That sounds pretty foolproof, doesn’t it?
It might sound like it, but it has a major security flaw. That flaw means that you’re not nearly as anonymous as you think you are with Tor.
Why It Isn’t Completely Anonymous
The problem with Tor is in the exit node. Once you leave the exit node, you are exposed. Your information is no longer encrypted, and you aren’t safe anymore.
The person running the exit node can track all of your activity. In other words, once you leave the exit node and get to your site, you can be tracked.
You might think that you’re safe since random people run the exit nodes, but that is a misconception. People have to volunteer to run exit nodes, and some do it so they can get their hands on information.
That is just what happened back in 2007 when a security researcher ran an exit node. The researcher hosted five Tor exit nodes and used them to intercept email messages.
When he did that, he exposed major vulnerabilities in the Tor network. It proved that anyone with malicious intent could set up an exit node and use it to steal information.
Some people also believe that the government could run exit nodes and track people. If you don’t like the idea of being tracked by the government, that can be a sobering thought.
That’s only one of the problems. Another issue is that you can be tracked from entry to exit by downloading a tracking file. If someone who wants to track you gets you to download the file, he or she will be able to see your entry and exit points. That will allow the person to track all of your moves online, even if you’re using Tor.
You could be tracked for a variety of reasons, and none of them is good. If you’re serious about anonymous browsing, you don’t want to fall victim to this.
The Solution: Use a Proxy
Of course, you can avoid this with a Tor proxy. You add your proxy settings to your Tor browser, and then you can browse the internet without worrying about being tracked.
Your proxy will mask your identity, making it impossible for people to track your entry points. If they can’t get you at your entry point, they won’t be able to catch up with you at the exit node.
Of course, you’ll still be anonymous at the exit point, as well, so even if they did try to track you after you leave the exit node, you will be safe. That is a huge relief to people who want to browse the internet anonymously.
Configuring a Proxy with Tor
If you’re going to browse the deep web, it is essential that you add your Tor proxy to your browser’s settings beforehand. Fortunately, configuring your proxy with Tor is simple.
First, download the Tor browser.
Once it downloads, open it up, and go to the network settings. Then, click “configure.”
You’ll be asked if you want to use a proxy. Click “yes” and then configure your proxy. After you do that, you will be ready to use Tor.
It is important to note that you have to configure it this way if you’re going to use Tor with a proxy. If you try to add the proxy to your internet settings instead, the system will block Tor from working. Tor will assume that you are using the proxy instead of the Tor browser, so it will shut it down. That is why you have to configure your proxy inside of the Tor browser.
Once you get Tor set up, you probably want to know when you should use it and when you shouldn’t. Let’s take a closer look at when you need to use Tor.
When Should You Use Tor?
If you’re going to access anything on the deep web, you need to use Tor and a proxy. Tor is your ticket to the deep web. You have to download the Tor client and configure your proxy settings. Then, you can go to all of the sites on the deep web that you want to see.
However, what if you’re just going to use Google and other indexed sites? Should you go to the trouble of using Tor?
To put it simply, no.
First of all, Tor is incredibly slow. Tor bounces traffic through computers that are located all around the world. The traffic bottlenecks and experiences issues with latency. The bottlenecks won’t be fixed unless more people configure their computers to become relays. The network doesn’t just need a few more relays. It needs lots of them, so don’t expect it to fix this problem anytime in the near future.
It goes beyond that, though. The system isn’t designed to be blazing fast. Even when it is working at its best, it isn’t going to be fast. In fact, you could be the only person using the network, and it will still be slow. That is the price you pay for going through all of those relays.
Not only that, but the performance isn’t consistent. It might be sluggish one moment, and then at a decent speed the next. Then, it can go down to a slow crawl. This is normal with Tor. The performance is all over the map, which can be very frustrating.
Second, since your identity can be sniffed out at exit nodes, it doesn’t make sense to use Tor unless you absolutely have to do so. You don’t have to use it for regular web browsing, so forgo Tor and just go with a proxy. You will get better performance and you will be safer when you choose a proxy over Tor.
Tips for Using Tor
Let’s say you are accessing the deep web, and you want to get the most out of Tor. With that in mind, you need to follow some tips for using Tor. These tips won’t speed it up, but they will help you get more out of the browser.
Stick with HTTPS Sites
Once you leave the exit node, your information is no longer encrypted when you use Tor. That means you are incredibly vulnerable. With that in mind, it is a good idea to stick with HTTPS sites instead of HTTP sites.
Consider installing the add-on HTTPS Everywhere before you use Tor. This add-on fixes some problems that HTTPS sites have. It will help you stay safe when you use Tor.
If you insist on accessing HTTP sites, understand that your information can be compromised. Sites on the deep web aren’t monitored, so be very careful. Do not give out any personal information and make sure your computer is scrubbed clean. Otherwise, you could become the victim of identity theft.
Don’t Use Flash, RealPlayer, QuickTime, or other Plugins
These plugins might be fun to use, but they cause a serious problem when it comes to privacy. Hackers can manipulate them into revealing your IP address. Once that happens, you are no longer anonymous.
While not using them should be enough, it is a good idea to disable them, as well. That way, they won’t be promoted to open up. Once they are open, the hackers can get to work, so take the extra step and disable them.
Don’t Open Documents While Using Tor
When you use Tor, you might download some PDF or Word files. As much as you might want to open them while you are connected to the Tor network, you need to wait until you are no longer using Tor. Files often contain internet resources. If you open the resources, you will do that outside of Tor. Then, you won’t be anonymous anymore. Because of that, it is a good idea to wait.
Don’t Use Tor with Windows
Tor works with Windows operating systems, but Windows has some serious security vulnerabilities. If you have Windows and you still want to use Tor, proceed at your own risk. Understand that you won’t be as secure as you would be with a different operating system. It is essential that you use a Tor proxy if you have a Windows computer. Otherwise, you might fall victim to one of those vulnerabilities. Your identity might be compromised, and that will defeat the purpose of using Tor.
Keep Your Computer Up to Date
Security vulnerabilities are the main concern when using Tor, and if your computer isn’t up to date, it will be at a bigger risk. Check for updates before you connect to the Tor browser. This will provide you with some additional protection as you surf the web. This protection might not take care of all of the threats, but it will at least protect you from known vulnerabilities.
Delete Your Cookies
While Tor is necessary if you want to access the deep web, it isn’t a good option for standard web browsing. Remember that you can stay anonymous when you browse the surface web by using a proxy. Otherwise, you need to use Tor and a Tor proxy to browse the deep web.