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On the Privacy & Security of TOR Browser

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Would I be vulnerable when using Tor Browser?

TOR is one of the most popular software out there which protects internet users by maintaining their privacy when they go online. TOR stands for The Onion Router, and the name makes more sense than one might think. When using Tor browser, it is just like any other internet browser such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome.

The difference between Tor and other browsers is that unlike such browsers, it does not constantly collect data about the online habits of the users, but it does the opposite. It directs all of the online activity with the help of a secure channel and it ensures that everything that one browses online is kept anonymous. It means that the data about the internet habits would not be exposed and privacy would be ensured. Tor Browser does not sell this data to third parties.

This is done by sending all of the online data through its personal network first. This network consists of a network of thousands of different servers that are located around the world. Since the data of users is passed around from this network before it reaches the final destination and as each connection does not have any observable link to the previous one, it would become almost impossible for the activity to be traced back to the user. This process makes users anonymous online.

When it comes to privacy, TOR appears to be a clear winner. However, there are certainly some drawbacks to it. The browser is not 100 percent secure and there have been cases of malware being installed onto the devices of the users in the past. Furthermore, TOR does not secure data as well as the other online security and privacy tools such as a VPN. Besides, Tor could make internet connections really slow.

So how does Tor work?

As mentioned above, TOR operates just like a network. The network consists of a vast number of different servers. These are commonly known as relays or nodes. When one uses TOR, all of the internet data that they are using is encrypted and sent through the TOR network before it reaches the site that one is using. The data bounces between different relays every time. Hence, the term onion is used as the TOR network is multilayered. Every relay can decrypt a single layer of encrypted data which one sends before it passes on to the next relay. The intended destination of the data is the final relay. In theory, when the data passes through the TOR network, it is almost impossible to follow and monitor the online activity of the users. Perfect online anonymity can be achieved with TOR.

What are the risks of using TOR?

Online anonymity can be achieved with TOR. However, there are a few problems that have been encountered with the software over the years. Here are some of the key areas where TOR security is a genuine cause of concern.

Software vulnerabilities

The first thing to keep in mind is that the TOR browser is free software and just like each software, it would contain a few vulnerabilities. Whenever the TOR developers identify these, they would be patched through regular updates. What it means is that if one has not updated their TOR browser on a regular basis, then they are likely to be leaving it open for the known vulnerabilities which the hackers could exploit.

Normally, these vulnerabilities are minor issues that carry minimal risks. But, there are some bigger ones which would be a concern for users. There have been security researches that identified a significant vulnerability in the TOR browser. The vulnerability directly impacted the way TOR anonymizes the users and it meant that there was a considerable risk which TOR could lead to the leak of the real IP Address of users.

The vulnerability affected many users of both Linux and Mac devices, but not for Windows. Information about the vulnerability had not been released, and TOR developers have patched it since then. However, this discovery also showed that the TOR browser is not as perfect for security and might contain other unidentified vulnerabilities which the hackers may be exploiting already.

Encryption weaknesses

There are vulnerabilities in the way through which TOR encrypts the data of users. First of all, TOR does not encrypt usernames or passwords. It means that some of the computers acting as a relay for the network might actually be able to access the personal information of users. Furthermore, TOR also does not apply end-to-end encryption. What this means is that if one is visiting a website that is not encrypted such as by HTTPS, any of the data being sent would not be encrypted while it travels from the final TOR relay all the way to the site itself.

Law enforcement access

This vulnerability is based more on rumors and suppositions, rather than cold hard facts. However, it is still worth mentioning. The issue relates to some of the high profile criminal investigations to occur on the - dark web. It is a part of the internet that is not indexed by the search engines. On the other hand, it makes use of TOR so as to protect the users who frequently get involved in illegal activities.

When it comes to - dark net activities - it should almost be impossible for the law enforcement authorities to break into. But, it has been observed that a number of high profile cases show that law enforcement has exploited these vulnerabilities from the TOR network in order to crack such cases.

How to stay safe when using TOR?

Now, TOR still remains an excellent browser for keeping one anonymous online. However, it is not perfect and it is due to this reason that users should consider using TOR alongside other online tools for security and privacy that could help with some of the potential vulnerabilities. Therefore, it is recommended that users try a VPN alongside TOR, for example.