The Tor Browser makes the tricky work of surfing the Web anonymously as easy as using any other browser, but with a significant performance hit.
Jan. 26, 2016
Need to hire an assassin, buy some contraband, view illegal porn, or just bypass government, corporate, or identity thief snooping? Tor is your answer. Tor, which stands for “The Onion Router” is not a product, but a protocol that lets you hide your Web browsing as though it were obscured by the many layers of an onion. The most common way to view the so-called Dark Web that comprises Tor sites is by using the Tor Browser, a modded version of Mozilla Firefox. Using this Web browser also hides your location, IP address, and other identifying data from regular websites. Accessing Tor has long been beyond the ability of the average user. Tor Browser manages to simplify the process of protecting your identity onlinebut at the price of performance.
What Is Tor? Ifyou’re thinking that Tor comes from a sketchy group of hackers, know that its core technology was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Lab and D.A.R.P.A.. The Tor Project non-profit receives sizeable donations from various federal entities such as The National Science Foundation. The Tor Project has a page listing many examples of legitimate types of Tor users, such as political dissidents in countries with tight control over the Internet and individuals concerned about personal privacy.
Tor won’t encrypt your datafor that, you’ll need a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Instead, Tor routes your Internet traffic through a series of intermediary nodes. This makes it very difficult for government snoops or aggressive advertisers to track you online. Using Tor affords far more privacy than other browsers’ private (or Incognito) modes, since it obscures your IP address so that you can’t be trackedwith it. Standard browsers’ private browsing modes discard your cached pages and browsing history afteryour browsing session.Even Firefox’s new, enhanced private browsing mode doesn’t hide your identifiable IP address from the sites you visit, though it does prevent them tracking you based on cookies.
We tested a standard Windows installer, with choices to create desktop icons and run the browser immediately. The browser itself is a heavily modified version of Firefox 38.5 (as of this writing), and includes several security plug-ins as well as security tweaks such as not caching any website data. For a full rundown of the PCMag Editors’ Choice browser’s many features, read our full review of Firefox.
Before merrily browsing along anonymously, you need to inform Tor about your Webconnection. If your Internet connection is censored, you configure one way, if not, you can connect directly to the network. Since we live in a free societyand work for benevolent corporate overlords, we connected directly for testing. After connecting to the Tor relay system (a dialog with a progress bar appears at this stage), the browser launches, and you see theTor project’s page.
The browser interface is identical with Firefox, except with some necessary add-ons installed. NoScript, a commonly used Firefox add-on, is preinstalled and can be used to block most non-HTML content on the Web. The green onion button to the left of the address bar is the Torbutton add-on. It lets you see your Tor network settings, but also the circuit you’re using: Ourcircuit started in Germany and passed through two different addresses in the Netherlands before reaching the good old Internet. If that doesn’t suit you, you can request a new circuit, either for the current session or for the current site. This was one of our favorite features.
Everything you do in the browser is tested for anonymity: When we tried full-screening the browser window, a message told us that that could provide sites a way to track us, and recommended leaving the window at the default size. And the project’s site specifically states that using Tor alone doesn’t guarantee anonymity, but rather that you have to abide by safe browsing guidelines: don’t use BitTorrent, don’t install additionalbrowser add-ons, don’t open documents or media while online. The recommendation to only visit secure HTTPS sites is optionally enforced by a plug-in called HTTPS Everywhere.
Even if you follow these recommendations, though, someone could detect the simple fact that you’re using Tor, unless you set it up to use a Tor bridge relay. Those are not listed in the Tor directory, so hackers (and governments) would have more trouble finding them.
One thing we noticed while browsing the standard Web through Tor was the need to enter a CAPTCHA to access many sites. This is because your cloaked URL looks suspicious to website security services such as CloudFlare, used by millions of sites to protect themselves. It’s just one more price you pay for anonymity.
We also had trouble finding the correct version of websites we wished to visit. Directing the Tor Browser to PCMag.com, for example, took us to the Netherlands localization of our website. We could not find any way to direct us back to the main URL, which lets you access the U.S. site.
Tor hidden sites have URLs that end in .onion, preceded by 16 alphanumeric characters. You can find directories of these hidden sites with categories resembling the good old days of Yahoo. There’s even a Tor Links Directory page (on the regular Web) that’s a directory of these directories. There are many chat and message boards, but you even find directories of things like lossless audio files, video game hacks, and financial services such as anonymous bitcoin, and even a Tor version of Facebook. Many onion sites are very slow or completely downkeep in mind that they’re not run by deep-pocketed Web companies. Very often we clicked an onion link only to be greeted with an “Unable to Connect” error. Sinbad helpfully displays a red “Offline on last crawl” bullet to let you know that a site is probably nonfunctional.
Keep in mind, though, that the Tor Browser is based on the Firefox Extended Support Release versions, which updates less frequently so that large organizations have time to maintain their custom code. That means you don’t get quite the latest in Firefox performance and features, but security updates are delivered at the same time as new main versions.
There’s a similar story when it comes to standards compatibility: On the HTML5Test.com site, which quantifies the number of new Web standards supported by a browser, the Tor Browser gets a score of 412, compared with 468 for the latest Firefox version. You may run into incompatible sites, though. For example, none of the Internet speed connection test sites performed correctly in the Tor Browser.
Of course, you pay a price of extra setup and slower performance with the Tor Browser, but it’s less onerous than you may think. And the included support for fine-grain privacy and security protection is excellent. If you take your online privacy seriously, you owe it to yourself to check out the Tor Browser. For standard, full-speed Web browsing, however, check out PCMag Editors’ Choice Web browser, Firefox.
Go here to read the rest:
The Tor Browser: Tor Browser – au.pcmag.com