Now that Congress allows your Internet Service provider to sell your private information without your permission, almost everyone in the United States is talking about online privacy. With tech jargon words like Virtual Private Network, encryption, and tunnelling, it can be hard to make sense of it all. Regardless of whether you’re a pro or a noob, anyone with a passing interest in online privacy has undoubtedly heard of Tor. As much as “Mr. Robot” would like you to think of Tor as something only vigilante cyberspace revolutionaries would make use of, the truth is that anyone can use it, and almost everyone would benefit from it.
What Is Tor?
Simply put, Tor is software developed by a non-profit organization that allows a user to browse the Internet anonymously. Without getting too technical, Tor accomplishes this by re-routing all of your Internet traffic through a series of relays all around the world. Each one of these “relays” is a computer that runs special software that allows a user to connect to the Tor network. When using the Tor browser, your traffic will connect to several different relays. Each time it connects to a relay, information that can reveal your identity or location is wiped.
This is beneficial for three reasons. First, anyone with prying eyes who may be watching your Internet connection (like your ISP), can’t see what sites you visit. Second, it prevents the sites you visit from collecting information about you, like your physical location. Third, it lets you bypass sites that may be blocked. This is handy for people who have limited or even censored Internet access.
Installing and Getting Started
If the idea of your ISP spying on you creeps you out or you simply want to avoid your workplace’s pesky web restrictions, Tor can help. First, download the Tor browser. It is a modified version of Firefox that has been pre-configured to connect to the Tor network. After downloading the bundle, the installer will ask you where you would like to install the Tor browser. You can choose to stick it anywhere, but we recommend installing it to a spare USB drive. Doing so will allow you to launch the Tor browser straight from the USB without it having to integrate with your Windows operating system.
There are two main benefits to installing Tor to a USB drive. First, since it runs off of the USB and not the computer itself, there is literally no trace of Tor or your browsing history present anywhere on the PC. Secondly, this makes your Tor browser completely portable: simply take it with you and launch from any Windows machine.
Note: some people may wish to verify the signature of the Tor installer. If you suspect that someone might want to give you a fake version of Tor, you’ll probably want to do this. If so, the Tor Project website has detailed instructions on how to do so.
Using the Tor Browser
After installation, you will see a “Tor Browser” folder on the root directory of your USB. Inside that folder you will find the “Start Tor browser” EXE file. Double-clicking on that will launch the Tor browser application. A normal browser would then allow you to surf the Web to your heart’s content. With Tor, however, there are a few fiddly things you need to get out of the way first.
Upon first launch, a window will pop up asking you if you would like to connect to the Tor network directly or if you want to configure proxy settings. For most people, a direct connection is fine. If you run a VPN, you’re going to have to choose the latter. Once that’s out of the way, a modified version of Firefox will launch, and you’ll be able to jump in. While using Tor with the default settings is certainly more secure than virtually any other browser, you can tweak Tor to maximize its effectiveness.
Change Your Security Settings Within Tor
You can increase your security level by clicking the green onion icon next to the address bar. In the box that appears, select “Privacy and Security Settings.” You’ll see a “Security Level” slider. The default setting is “Low,” but you can increase it. In doing so you will increase your anonymity; however, the trade-off is that you will disable some of the features associated with web browsing. Here is a breakdown of what happens at each security level.
- Low (default) – All browser features are enabled.
Limitations of Using Tor
Tor allows you to browse in relative anonymity by redirecting your traffic through various relays. This means that data you send or receive through your computer will have to travel much further, which means that you can expect an overall slower online experience. In addition, only traffic direct from the Tor browser will run through the Tor network. This means that data routed through any other Internet-connected application does not and can be seen by advertisers, the government or anyone else who wants to have a peek.
Ultimately, Tor is only as secure as the person using it. While it helps to mask your identity, Tor does not protect you from malicious software like viruses or malware. The Tor Project also highly recommends that you rethink your browsing habits. Using search engines that don’t collect data and avoiding browser extensions that can potentially leak your IP address are all good places to start.
Do you use Tor? If so, do you have any other additional tips to help protect your privacy? Are you concerned with Internet anonymity and privacy? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!