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What is the Tor Browser? A Beginner‘s Guide to Understanding and Using Tor Safely

Do you value your privacy and anonymity while browsing the internet? If so, you‘re not alone. With data breaches and surveillance increasingly common, more people are turning to tools like the Tor browser to protect their online identities.

But what exactly is Tor? How does it work to enhance your privacy? And is it safe and legal to use? This comprehensive guide will answer all your questions about the Tor browser so you can make an informed decision about using it.

What is Tor and How Was it Created?

Tor, derived from "The Onion Router", is free and open source software that allows anonymous communication over the internet. It works by concealing your identity and routing your traffic through an encrypted network of global volunteers.

The origins of Tor trace back to the mid-1990s, when the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) aimed to develop a system to protect government communications. Their solution was onion routing – wrapping encrypted layers around data as it passes through various nodes.

In 2002, NRL released their Onion Routing project to the public. The non-profit Tor Project further developed the technology into what we now know as the Tor browser. They maintain and update the software to improve security and privacy.

Today, Tor has over 2 million daily users worldwide across multiple platforms including Windows, macOS, Linux, and mobile. It allows regular internet users to browse the web anonymously, as well as providing cover for whistleblowers, journalists, and activists under oppressive regimes.

How Does Tor Provide Anonymity?

Unlike standard web browsers that connect you directly to sites, Tor routes your traffic through a series of relay nodes run by volunteers around the world. This conceals your IP address and prevents network surveillance or traffic analysis tracking your online activities.

Onion Routing for Privacy

The key innovation behind Tor is onion routing, which encrypts and randomly bounces communications through at least three Tor nodes. Each node peels back a layer of encryption to uncover the next relay in the circuit.

Much like layers of an onion, this wrapped encryption hides the origin source and destination from being linked. It prevents any single node from knowing the full path of your data.

Onion routing diagram

Tor‘s onion routing technology conceals the origin of traffic by wrapping encrypted layers around data.

This approach differs from VPNs which mainly focus on encryption. Tor‘s added layers of anonymity provide stronger privacy protections.

Hiding Your IP Address

Your IP address can be used to identify your location and monitor what sites you visit. But when using Tor, your traffic appears to come from a random Tor exit node.

By encrypting and routing your traffic through multiple relays, Tor effectively scrubs your real IP address. This prevents snooping ISPs or spying agencies from pinpointing your identity based on your internet activity.

According to researchers at MIT, Tor anonymizes around 96% of users from typical survaillence efforts.

Who Uses Tor? Legal and Illegal Use Cases

In 2022, Tor usage continues to grow steadily. It now averages over 2 million daily users. But who is leveraging this anonymous browsing software, and for what purpose?

Tor‘s ability to bypass censorship makes it popular globally with people living under authoritarian regimes. Journalists and activists also leverage Tor to securely communicate with sources and organize resistance efforts beyond the reach of government surveillance.

Whistleblowers often turn to Tor as well. Edward Snowden used it to leak classified NSA documents to reporters. Tor even provides anonymity to law enforcement needing to hide their identity during investigations.

However, much of Tor‘s infamy stems from its extensive use in illegal online activities. The dark web black markets Silk Road and AlphaBay relied on Tor to shield their operations. Cryptocurrency theft, hacking, piracy, and drug trafficking still occur hidden behind Tor‘s veil of anonymity.

Tor usage remains legal in countries like the US, but its criminal associations make it completely banned in regions like China and Russia.

Should You Use Tor? Weighing the Pros and Cons

When deciding if Tor is right for you, weigh these key advantages and disadvantages:

Pros of Tor:

  • Enhanced privacy from tracking of browsing data and habits
  • Ability to bypass censorship and access blocked content
  • Protects free speech, communications for journalists, activists
  • Available globally for free as open source software

Cons of Tor:

  • Slower speeds due to extra encryption and relay hops
  • Not immune to vulnerabilities like malware or hacked exit nodes
  • Frequently associated with dark web crimes
  • Banned or restricted by some corporations and countries

For those prioritizing privacy, Tor provides robust anonymity protections despite its downsides. But it depends on your specific needs and threat model.

How to Use Tor Safely: 10 Expert Tips

While Tor enhances privacy substantially, it cannot guarantee 100% anonymity. Follow these tips from cybersecurity experts for optimal security:

  • Pair Tor with a VPN for added encryption. Windscribe and ProtonVPN have .onion sites.
  • Only download Tor from official sources like
  • Keep Tor updated with the latest security fixes.
  • Disable JavaScript and Flash in Tor settings to prevent exploits.
  • Sandbox your Tor browser using isolation software like Whonix or Tails.
  • Never enter any personal info or accounts while using Tor.
  • Limit browsing to sites with HTTPS encryption when possible.
  • Use Tor bridges in censored regions to bypass blocks.
  • Understand the risks before accessing dark web sites.
  • Educate yourself on proper opsec like not combining personal and anonymous activities.

Pairing Tor with privacy-enhancing tools like VPNs, firewalls, and antivirus software further minimizes risks and improves anonymity.

Tor Browser FAQs – Your Top Questions Answered

Is it illegal to use Tor?

In most countries, merely using the Tor network itself is not illegal. However, be sure to follow local laws, as some nations do restrict Tor. Also avoid illegal activities on Tor, as you can still be tracked in some cases.

Can Tor be traced back to you?

While very difficult, expert adversaries could potentially trace Tor traffic back to your real IP address in certain circumstances. For instance, if they control the Tor entry and exit nodes you are using. Adding a VPN provides further protection.

Do you need a VPN with the Tor browser?

A VPN is recommended but not required. Studies have shown using a VPN in addition to Tor substantially increases anonymity. A VPN encrypts your traffic before it enters the Tor network for added security.

Is the dark web illegal?

The dark web itself is not inherently illegal, but buying/selling drugs, weapons, hacking tools, and other illegal items on dark web marketplaces is against the law. Browse the dark web cautiously.

Can you use Tor on public WiFi?

Yes, Tor adds a layer of privacy when using public WiFi. However, additional precautions like using a VPN are recommended, as public WiFi carries security risks even with Tor.

How do Tor relays and nodes work?

Tor relies on a volunteer network of node operators that pass encrypted traffic through their systems. Tor clients randomly choose a path through at least 3 nodes – entry, relay, and exit. Each node decrypts a layer to uncover the next destination.

The Bottom Line – Tor Offers Robust Anonymity Online

Tor utilizes innovative onion routing technology to provide users with a high degree of anonymity. However, it‘s important to understand it‘s not bulletproof from surveillance. Proper precautions are necessary for optimal privacy and security.

By leveraging Tor safely, journalists, activists, whistleblowers and everyday internet users can browse and communicate with less risk of tracking or censorship. Just be wise in your usage, and avoid conducting personal and anonymous activities on the same system.

Have more questions? Reach out, I‘m always happy to help provide insider guidance on maximizing your online privacy. The internet can be a risky place, but with tools like Tor, we can make our voices heard while minimizing potential downsides.


Streamr Go

StreamrGo is always about privacy, specifically protecting your privacy online by increasing security and better standard privacy practices.