Tor Browser: Polished and Private

Category: Browsers , Privacy

I don't spend much time in dark corners of the Web, but news of the latest privacy-focused Tor browser caught my eye, so I installed it and spent some time wandering through the Tor network. It was an interesting and surprisingly non-geeky sojourn! Here's what you need to know about the Tor network and web browser...

Tor Browser Gets a Facelift

For the uninitiated: Tor is a decentralized, global network of anonymous proxy servers. Each node in Tor acts much like a VPN (virtual private network) server. It accepts your browser’s requests for Web content, connects to the server(s) on which the objects reside, downloads copies and transmits them to your browser. The Tor node acts as your proxy; hence the term “proxy server.” The benefit of Tor is that the remote server does not get any data about you, since you never connect to the remote server; a Tor node does that on your behalf.

However, it is theoretically possible to backtrack the node’s request to see where it actually originated. To frustrate such espionage, Tor routes your browser’s requests and the data sent in response to them through multiple nodes, forcing a really interested party to repeat the backtracking process multiple times. It’s like peeling off layer after layer from an onion. But the proxy network used by Tor makes it very difficult to do that backtracking. More on that later.

There are many good reasons to use Tor, but some of them are bad. Tor provides cover for activists, journalists, authors, and others whom a repressive government might want to track down or merely associate with certain “forbidden” content on the Web. On the other hand, Tor also covers the tracks of illegal arms and drug dealers, child traffickers, copyright violators, mobsters, miscreants, and malefactors.

Tor Browser facelift

But that’s not us, right? We are going about lawful business using a network that runs through parts of the world where privacy is banned, or where additional layers of privacy are desired. The journey goes surprisingly well!

The Tor browser is based upon Firefox, and the Tor Project team is a loose coalition of part-time developers. That explains why Tor Browser lags the official Firefox releases by just a few months after the latter’s release. You can download Tor 9.5 here.

Installation is a breeze! I found Tor surprisingly easy to download and install. In less than 5 clicks, I was up and running with Tor. On the downside, websites I visited loaded noticeably slower than usual, especially those with many images. One other glitch was that some pages loaded in languages other than English, because the proxy that was used to connect me was located outside the USA.

Pirates, Rabbit Holes, and Latency

Thinking of “sketchy sites to check out with Tor” led me first to The Pirate Bay. (In case you're not familiar, TPB is described by Wikipedia as "an online index of digital entertainment media and software." That's a polite way of saying that it's a search engine for pirated movies and music.) I got an "unable to connect" error. Solution: I tried again later, and it worked. If you have trouble connecting to a website, or need help with Tor, see the Tor Project’s FAQ page.

Elsewhere on the Internet, Tor mostly behaves well, but slowly. (after several attempts) reported Tor 9.5’s download speed as 5.7 Mbps with a 300 ms latency. The same test a moment later but using Chrome yielded 221 Mbps with 10 ms latency. In my testing, some sites that work just fine in Chrome, Edge or Firefox failed to load, or loaded partially with the Tor browser. In most cases, reloading solved the problem.

Pages will load significantly more slowly via Tor than they do over the regular Internet. I did get a bit impatient waiting for the last bits of a page to load, perhaps as long as 45 seconds after the first bit arrived. But YouTube audio and video files play just fine on Tor; there is no choppiness, at least with 480p resolution. Download speed is not the problem; that 300 ms latency is. Once a video file starts streaming it does so continuously at an adequate speed. But a web page that fetches content from 15 different sources takes 0.3 x 15 = 5 seconds longer to load due to the 300 ms latency of each fetching. The delay might be reduced if Tor downloaded pages via multiple parallel connections, but that does not seem to be the case in my experience.

Along those lines, there are multiple levels of security available. With the default "Standard" level, all Tor browser features are enabled. The "Safer" level disables "certain features that are often dangerous", such as Javascript on non-HTTPS sites, certain fonts, and math symbols. Audio and video that would normally autostart will be forced into click-to-play mode. The "Safest" mode is recommended only for static sites and basic Web services; Javascript is completely disabled.

It's also worth noting that the Tor developers recommend against installing Firefox add-ons with Tor Browser, because some add-ons can bypass proxy settings and break anonymity. And of course, Tor cannot protect your privacy on a website that requires a sign-in. By signing in, you have identified yourself to that website.

So for browsing the mainstream Internet, the Firefox-based Tor browser is easy to use and provides considerable anonymity, meaning it would be extraordinarily expensive to figure out who is behind Tor’s hypothetical seven proxies. If it takes 100 years to do it, you have effectively complete anonymity; you will likely die long before the jackbooted thugs come knocking on your door.

I don’t live in or visit China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia, have no plans to join a covert organization, and a life of crime does not appeal to me. But if anything should change it’s great to know that Tor is available to cover my tracks, and that it works so well. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Tor Browser: Polished and Private"

Posted by:

11 Jun 2020

Your approval of PcMatic was outstanding! Could you negotate a special price for your subscribers ? Like $50 for 5 devices and $30 for a single device? We need your help!!



Posted by:

Bob K
11 Jun 2020

With Tor you can easily keep asking for a new circuit, and pick one that ends up in a country of your choice. If your final Tor server ends up in a country where the destination site wants to give you some foreign language responses, you can switch end points.

Some sites I visit track what I am looking for since I am a customer. Then they bug me constantly for 6 months to buy something they have. Using Tor shields me from that nonsense.

Posted by:

Ryan James
11 Jun 2020

Aside from torrents, what are some recommended reasons for using a Tor browser?

Posted by:

11 Jun 2020

I dislike videos that autoplay and I have done everything I can to stop it happening so I was particularly interested to read:

" Audio and video that would normally autostart will be forced into click-to-play mode"

Posted by:

11 Jun 2020

I'm a financial journalist specializing in preious metals, based in the UK. One of the companies I do occasional work for is located in the USA and blocks web traffic from outside the USA so the only way I can access the site needs to use a browser that can be set to appear to come from the USA and Tor enables me to do this. That's the only time I use Tor as I find it rather slower and clunkier than using Chrome of Firefox etc.

Posted by:

11 Jun 2020

Have you compared it to the BRAVE Browser? People seem to like it, what do you think?

Posted by:

Mike Davies
11 Jun 2020

The Opera browser has a function which calls itself a VPN. Strictly speaking it isn't a VPN but it does allow you to tell websites you're visiting that you are elsewhere in the world.

Posted by:

11 Jun 2020

As I recall, TOR highly recommends that you run the browser in less than maximized size for higher security. Simply open TOR and leave it at the screen size that it selects.

Posted by:

12 Jun 2020

Bob, great article.
I am using TOR once in a while because some countries outside the U.S. are black listed
to access some websites which is a hassle if you travel.
When you use TOR it appears that you are getting access from the U.S. or some European country and they let you in.

Posted by:

13 Jun 2020

Have you deleted some replies Bob ?

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