Is Tor really anonymous?

The Tor browser is often touted as the only way you can truly browse the internet with anonymity. 

The truth is total anonymity is virtually impossible – but there are some actions you can take that will go a long way to preserving your right to privacy. 

What is Tor and how does it work?

Tor is a browser often billed as the most private way to browse the internet thanks to its method of connecting users. Available since 2006, the goal has always been to try and create the most private browsing experience possible.

Tor does this by rerouting all of your traffic through the Tor network, an intricate web of entry, middle relay, and exit nodes (all user computers and servers) sustained by privacy-conscious volunteers offering up their own bandwidth. 

By bouncing your traffic around a sufficient number of middle relays, Tor makes it nigh-on impossible to trace your internet traffic back to you by the time it is spat out at the other end. Each node doesn't even know where the traffic it's receiving even came from, beyond the node that it received it from. It's these 'layers' that actually give Tor its name  – it's an acronym for 'The Onion Router'. Check out our what is tor page if you would like to know more about this browser.

Is using Tor illegal? 

Many people think using Tor is illegal because it grants you access to both the deep and dark web – the parts of the internet inaccessible through conventional methods.

The dark web has been widely covered in the media in recent years due to the many illegal activities that take place on it on a daily basis. The drug and gun trades on the dark web, for example, have flourished on sites like The Silk Road. 

However, downloading the program and accessing this part of the internet isn't in and of itself illegal in any part of the world. Journalists use Tor for work purposes and it is a great tool to access information from around the world if you live in a country with draconian censorship laws.

Thanks to the recent media coverage, many people now download Tor simply out of curiosity. It can also be easily used as a normal browser. 

Does using Tor make you anonymous?

The short answer is no, not completely – but it comes closer than virtually any other off-the-shelf. Tor is pretty upfront about this on their site as it's vital to remember when using the browser that it has limitations. 

Generally it is impossible to have perfect anonymity, even with Tor ... Tor only protects applications that are properly configured to send their Internet traffic through Tor.

Tor FAQs

Tor does as much as it possibly can to ensure your activity is untraceable, but that sometimes isn't enough – and there are things you might even do to compromise your own privacy. 

Limitations of Tor

Entry nodes – Your internet traffic won't be encrypted until it actually enters the Tor network, so the first node you connect to will technically be able to see your router's IP address. 

Exit nodes – Operators of Tor exit nodes can potentially monitor your internet activity, particularly if you visit an unencrypted web address, so there is an element of trust involved, even though it would still be tricky for them to trace it back to you if you don't personal information as part of your traffic. This is why users have to consent to use exit nodes. It's likely that law enforcement agencies and governments run some of them in order to monitor criminal activity.

IP address leaks – If you access sites that use Javascript, you might leak personally identifiable information. Check out our IP leak guide for more information about this topic. 

You – In terms of compromising your privacy, you're almost as much of a threat to yourself as others are. Tor can't control what you're doing. If you log in to Facebook or pay for something using a credit card in your name, you're undermining all of Tor's attempts to preserve your privacy. 

How you can browse Tor more securely

With these limitations taken into consideration, there are some things you can do to make sure you don't render Tor's efforts obsolete. 

    • Don't install browser plug-ins – Tor blocks them as they can reveal your IP address. 
    • Use a VPN – two tried-and-tested privacy tools are better than one. 
    • Don't torrent using Tor – File-sharing applications often ignore Tor's commands and make direct connections between users. 
    • Don't open any documents whilst online – They could be auto-opened by an application outside of Tor. 
    • Use pseudonyms – Pseudonyms and aliases could stop a government or individual from tracking you down. 
    • Don't hand out your personal information – This could easily help someone pair your traffic to you, no IP address needed. 
    • Regularly delete your cookies and browsing history – They still carry information that may identify you. 
    • Make sure your systems are up to date – You don't want avoidable vulnerabilities creeping in due to outdated software. 
    • Use a secure browser – Ditch Bing or Google for something more privacy-friendly, like Brave or DuckDuckGo. 

Building bridges

Bridge relays are like Tor relays, but they aren't publically listed. You can use these if you think connecting to Tor at all may compromise your safety.

This may be useful for people trying to access the site from inside territories where Tor is banned, or those who have ISPs that block the browser. 

Can I use a VPN with Tor? 

Yes, and it can actually help you improve your privacy. If you use a VPN and Tor, both would have to be compromised somehow to find your IP address, which is an order of magnitude less likely if you're using both rather than one. 

Confusingly, you can use a VPN through Tor, but you can also use Tor through a VPN. The latter method will make it much more difficult for the Tor nodes to see your true IP address, whereas the former will conceal your IP address from your VPN provider. 

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, which are looked at in greater detail in our best VPNs for Tor guide. It also includes a more in-depth analysis of the best VPNs to use with Tor, which are listed below: 

  1. PrivateVPN - A cheap, but, a very secure VPN for Tor. This service also provides instructions on how to use it with Tor on their website.
  2. NordVPN - A secure VPN with a great no logs policy and you can pay with bitcoin. It has a great VPN over onion feature so it's easy to use.
  3. ProtonVPN - A secure service that supports Tor through its GUI client. It labels what servers are best for Tor within its desktop app.
  4. AirVPN - Offers fantastic privacy and security features, supports Linux with a GUI, and has detailed guides on how to combine AirVPN with Tor.
  5. Mullvad - A secure service that cares about your anonymity, they even accept cash payments sent by post.

Other ways to enhance your privacy online

Finally, it's worth briefly outlining some ways you can improve your privacy and security without downloading Tor. These are general advice tips that will help regardless of the browser or OS you're using.

So whether you're using Tor or not, remember that true anonymity is hard to come by – but there's plenty of other things you can do to make yourself more secure.

Written by: Aaron Drapkin

After graduating with a philosophy degree from the University of Bristol in 2018, Aaron became a researcher at news digest magazine The Week following a year as editor of satirical website The Whip. Freelancing alongside these roles, his work has appeared in publications such as Vice, Metro, Tablet and New Internationalist, as well as The Week's online edition.

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