The Pros and Cons of Using Tor for Online Privacy

by Tracy Knauer •

Tor lets you browse the Internet anonymously. But to use it effectively, you should understand what it does and what it doesn’t do. Here’s a concise summary of things to know about Tor.

As an online privacy solution, Tor offers lots of advantages. These include:

  • It’s free.
  • It’s relatively easy to set up and use. For most people, downloading and installing the Tor browser bundle is all it takes to get started.
  • It supports all major operating systems.
  • It makes it very difficult to identify your true IP address.
  • It’s open source software. That means the code can be inspected by anyone, which reduces the risk that it contains malicious backdoors.
  • It can be used at the same time as a VPN service or other proxy so that you have multiple layers of privacy protection.

But if you choose to use Tor you should also understand what it doesn’t do. Here are Tor’s limitations:

  • It doesn’t encrypt your traffic. Anyone monitoring your connection could still read things like usernames and passwords that are transmitted in plaintext. Using a VPN or HTTPS encryption on top of Tor will protect against this.
  • It’s not recommended for use with BitTorrent or other torrent clients. That’s because torrent clients will usually reveal your true IP address even if you attempt to configure them not to.
  • It’s possible for people monitoring your Internet connection to know that you are using Tor, even if they can’t trace your IP address.
  • Tor doesn’t anonymize Internet activity in apps other than the ones it’s specifically configured to protect. If you are using the Tor browser bundle, only your Web activity will be anonymized. Chat apps and other services won’t be. It’s possible to configure Tor to anonymize all Internet traffic, but that requires a fair bit of technical expertise. (Or you could use a platform like Tails OS, which comes with full Tor encryption built in.)
  • Some software that runs inside your browser, like Flash apps, are usually not protected by Tor. You shouldn’t use them if you want to remain anonymous.
  • Bandwidth speeds are often reduced when using Tor.

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