You might be surprised to hear you can use The Onion Router (Tor) browser just like any regular browser. But before you reach your destination site, it takes you out of the mainstream Web and brings you to the Tor network. Anyone who wishes to visit the so-called “Dark Web,” which lies inside the Deep Web, needs to use the Tor browser.
What is the Difference between the Deep Web and the Dark Web?
The Deep Web encompasses all the parts of the Internet that normal browsers such as Google, Yahoo!, and Bing cannot reach. The Dark Web, meanwhile, is a small portion of the Deep Web that has been intentionally hidden and made inaccessible through standard web browsers.
What is the Tor Network?
Probably the most infamous content that resides on the Dark Web is found via the Tor network.
The Tor network can be accessed with the Tor browser. It leads to the portion of the Internet most widely known for illicit activities enabled by the anonymity that it provides.
The Tor network has three layers (like an onion, hence “Tor”), each of which is controlled by a different server.
What does Each Tor Network Layer Do?
In the first layer—the application layer—the Tor browser encrypts communication, including the destination IP address, several times. This essentially masks the user’s IP address.
The traffic then passes through a virtual circuit (the second layer), which is made up of several Tor relays that encrypts the communication even more.
By the time you pass through the third layer (final relay), your IP address would have been changed so that you appear to be originating from a different physical location. Users can confirm this by getting on Google and see if it greets them in a different language.
Here’s a short video of how the Tor browser works:
Can Someone Track Me on the Tor Network?
While you are using the Tor network, your IP address will look to any Web or Dark Web server as one that comes from a Tor exit node (the third layer we mentioned above). When you get to and interact with others on a Tor network page, the IP address that the page’s server and other users will see is that of the node. For that reason, your Internet service provider (ISP) will not be able to trace this back to your original address.
Should I Use a VPN with the Tor Browser?
Technically, it is possible to use a virtual private network (VPN) with the Tor browser. The VPN acts as another layer of anonymity to the already layered anonymizing feature of the Tor network.
The VPN will encrypt all your traffic and obscure your original IP address to make it appear that you are physically located in a different part of the world. Then the Tor network further muddles the situation by encrypting your traffic beyond recognition and changing your IP address once more so that no one can ever track your activities.
What are the Disadvantages of Using the Tor Browser?
As effective and efficient as the Tor browser and the Tor network are at keeping you cloaked on the Internet, they do present a couple of cons.
First, it’s not 100% foolproof. Your ISP can still track your online activities before you started accessing the Tor network. If you or your company happens to be on some evil genius hackers’ radar and they are very good at their craft, they might still be able to deduce who you are and track you down.
Another more annoying issue is that the Tor browser is slow. Keep in mind that all your traffic, along with that of millions of other users on the Tor network, need to go through several anonymizing layers. So, expect everything to take more time to load.
Is It Legal to Use the Tor Browser?
The Tor browser and the Tor network have gotten a bad reputation because they are now associated with illegal activity on the Dark Web. However, the browser and network are simply tools that let you accomplish certain things without fear of identification. Many also use them for non-malevolent purposes, such as to freely express themselves, pursue interests that many would consider bizarre, or simply be anonymous.
So, there is nothing illegal in using the Tor browser or the Tor network. It’s what you use them for that defines whether what you’re doing is legal or not. If you use them to explore what is out there, you should be fine. If you use them, however, to sell contraband, then you’re definitely engaging in something illegal.