What is Tor?
Tor is a routing protocol designed to maximise privacy and anonymity online. The only way to be anonymous online is to use tor, VPNs are useful in some cases, but anonymity is not one of them.
How Does Tor Work?
The Onion Router selects three servers at random to route a user’s traffic through. These servers are known as “nodes” or “hops”, and there is an entry, a middle, and an exit node. Tor is a trustless design, and as such, each node only knows what it needs to in order to direct the traffic to where it needs to go. The entry node knows your IP address, but not the destination of your traffic. The middle node knows the entry node IP, and the exit node IP, but not the source or the destination. The exit node knows the final destination and the second server, but not where the traffic originated from. What this does is ensure that getting a whole picture of where traffic originates and travels to is almost impossible.
Each node in the network acts as a server available for use, and does not know whether it is being used as an entry, middle, or exit node until it is picked at random. Because of this, it is highly impractical and expensive for anyone to have nodes set up in a way that could de-anonymise users of tor. If you were the theoretical bad guy, you would need to have enough servers running on the network for as long as it takes to randomly be selected to route the traffic as an entry and exit node for the same user. The odds of that happening are ridiculously low. The fact is, governments have better ways to track people and their online activities, and if you are up against that kind of adversary, good luck to you. You have more to worry about than the tor network being exploited.
Downsides of Using Tor
The connection can be pretty slow, and some websites will not allow traffic from Tor connections. The more people use it however, the better the speeds will get, as more people set up nodes for others. Your bank will still have issues with you trying to access your account from the other side of the world, so I’d recommend you use one of the other browsers here for that kind of stuff.
How To Use Tor Properly
As browser fingerprinting allows websites to learn things about you based on the settings being used by the browser and the cookies stored in the browser, it’s important to follow some simple rules when browsing on Tor.
1. Don’t change any of the settings
This means even resizing the window, or entering fullscreen, as it makes you stand out by giving away your monitors’ resolution. The more people that use the defaults, the bigger the crowd of browsers that can’t be distinguished from one another, and the more anonymous users become.
2. Close the session down completely after you are done
Keep browsing sessions separate, and singular in purpose. This comes down to the stored cookies that can be used by websites to learn where you have been previously. Tor browser automatically wipes all site data once the browser is closed.
3. Don’t log into personal accounts (if you want to remain anonymous)
You can log in to personal accounts, but if you do, make sure it’s on a site protected by SSL, meaning that it is a HTTPS site, usually indicated by a lock symbol in the address bar. This means that the traffic is end-to-end encrypted, and your data will most likely be safe from any nasty parties in the middle. Obviously the benefit of anonymity will be gone as soon as you log into an account linked to your identity.
So no storing information in the browser, keep sessions to themselves, make sure the sessions are singular in their purpose, and be aware of de-anonymising yourself.
How To Use Tor
You can download the Tor browser here to get started.
Download it for your operating system from the website, and follow the instructions to set it up, and start browsing with the above tips in mind.
To get Tor on mobile: enable the guardian project archive in F-droid by going into the settings and finding the repository option. Once the repository of apps in F-Droid is updated, find the tor browser and install it. If you’re on iPhone, download Onion Browser from the app store.
A note on Tor over VPN:
This practice is discouraged if anonymity is the goal. A 4th node in the network is not better than 3, because you have only added an extra node that can be tied back to you via a money trail or account.
There you have it, start using Tor for as much browsing as you can. It’s private, secure, and it helps anonymise people that might need it more than you.