Tor. A small three-letter word. Chances are, if you listen to the tech news, you will have heard about Tor. You will probably have heard that Tor is where ALL the cybercrime is. Tor is where all the bad porn is. You will hear this from journalists who should know better. The same journalists that use Tor to provide them with a gateway to the internet for reporting within oppressive regimes.
Today is Pride day, and with all the nastiness going on in the world I thought I would share with you why I, a penetration tester and security researcher am a Tor user. But first, how does it work?
How Tor works
Tor is short for The Onion Router. It was initially a worldwide network of servers developed with the U.S. Navy when they realised that the traditional network was vulnerable. But that was in the mid-'90s. In 2004 it became a thing that enabled people to browse the internet anonymously. Now, it’s a non-profit organisation whose main purpose is the research and development of online privacy tools.
The Tor network disguises your identity by encrypting your traffic and moving it across different Tor relays within the network. Software engineer Robert Heaton has a great summary of how this keeps you anonymous.
All you have to do to access Tor is download the Tor browser. Since its initial creation, the Tor Browser has become a lot easier to use. There are several settings you can adjust, but in the main, it works fine "out of the box". Just remember though, the more relays your data goes through, the slower your browsing will be.
What do I use Tor for?
Tor is useful for everyone. We are all sick of our internet activities being recorded. Yes Facebook and Google, we are looking at you. But many others too. The average website has around 20 cookies from various third parties and the majority are tracking you for some purpose.
I use Tor for my day to day browsing. I find it useful for the following reasons:
- I have little to no identity on Tor. (If this is why you use Tor, for heaven's sake don't log into social media from it, or use services that identify you.) I like my privacy and while I have nothing to hide, I don't feel comfortable with the amount of tracking going on.
- I have some private web services I keep on Tor, meaning they are private. There is pretty much no way of finding them unless you are told where they are. Nothing spiders or indexes them. So using Tor is the only way to get to them.
- There is a lot of really good material on the Tor network and often when I am having a bad head day, it is a release to spend an hour combing through old book archives and reading computing journals from the '80s.
I will also use a trusted VPN provider to secure that first hop to the internet too. Many people will tell you that you do not need to use a VPN with Tor. They are wrong.
When I am not using Tor?
There is only one reason I will drop Tor and "go native". Speed. While I would happily use Tor, with a VPN over Tor, to access my online bank account (who knows who is running the relays and listening to the traffic), it can be really slow. When this happens, I will use my VPN with the Vivaldi web browser.
My Tor Setup
My Tor setup is a little different to most. While you can just download Tor and use it, I would always recommend using a VPN. For my use, I have configured my laptop to connect to the internet only over my trusted VPN provider. Once the VPN is up and running, then I launch Tor and connect into the Tor network over that VPN connection. When you use Tor over VPN in this way, the VPN encrypts your data and hides your IP address, sending your data through its secure servers before connecting to the Tor network.
This means that all of your traffic, not just your browser activity, is protected, and your ISP won’t be able to see that you’re using Tor, since VPNs hide your activity from them. And on top of that, your VPN provider won’t be able to see your activity within the Tor network.