Here’s whether it’s safe to download through Tor:
This can be a mixed bag.
Tor works hard to create a safer internet experience, and in a technical sense, it does secure downloads and protect users from prying eyes when downloading.
That said, Tor is not a malware protection suite, and downloads from Tor can be just as bad as any other download out there.
So if you want to learn all about how safe it is to download through Tor, then you’re in the right place.
Let’s get started!
What Is Tor?
Tor is an internet browser that is dedicated to privacy and anonymity on the internet.
While that’s the official answer, it’s a bit of an understatement.
Tor is an organization that works hard to provide resources for users who don’t want to be watched or tracked when they use the internet.
As part of that effort, the Tor browser is one that provides a ton of privacy and anonymity when you use it.
What Makes Tor Safe? (3 Things)
Tor was created in the effort to provide an anonymous web experience.
That’s the entire purpose behind its development.
With that in mind, Tor was made with some great safety features built right into it.
At the center of it all is the Tor server system.
It’s a decentralized system that works hard to mask your presence on the internet.
I’ll get into how it works when I discuss IP (Internet Protocol) cloaking.
Until then, suffice it to say that the Tor server system is important.
Safety features baked into Tor allows you to bypass censorship, avoid being tracked, skip digital fingerprinting, and more.
How does it do all of this? The answer to that lies in a breakdown of a few key features and practices.
#1 History Management
A very nice feature of Tor (when it comes to anonymity and safety) is that it automatically clears your history and relevant data.
These are things that could be used to track you or pin certain internet activity to you.
Whether you’re just trying to have a private experience or viewing news articles that are banned in your country (or anything else, really), Tor is protecting you with this features.
This isn’t just managing cookies.
It goes beyond that to ensure that you do not have a traceable, viewable history that could be used against you.
How does this protect downloads?
Well, if you download something that another party would want to track, Tor hides the history of that download, making it harder for anyone to know what you did.
#2 IP Cloaking
IP cloaking makes it so people can’t trace your online activity to your device or location.
This is made possible through the Tor server experience.
Basically, everything you do runs through Tor servers first, so the website you connect to can’t see your actual IP address.
Instead, they see a Tor address.
Let me clarify.
Your IP address is a number that internet systems use to see where you are currently located.
This is important because the systems have to know where to psychically send the signals and information that you use when you’re online.
You can think of it like a physical mail system.
Your address is what the mail carriers use to know where to actually send the mail.
This is also necessary for internet connectivity.
What Tor is doing is acting as a middle man.
So, Tor knows where to send the information to get it to you, but it doesn’t share that information with the sites you visit.
This functionality is quite similar to a VPN, but it’s not exactly the same thing.
For anyone interested in the technical differences, Tor inverts the concept of a VPN.
With a VPN, you connect to one centralized server, and it obscures your identity on the internet.
With Tor, your traffic is routed through multiple servers.
The system is decentralized.
This makes it harder for anyone to track you, but it also comes at the cost of some VPN features, like picking a server in a specific location to unlock regional content.
#3 Onion Services
One thing that makes Tor special is the prevalence of onion services.
This is a little weird, so hang in there for a minute.
Tor provides onion services to website creators and hosts.
When these services are used, the website is made available entirely on Tor servers.
Instead of just routing traffic through a Tor server and connecting to a website out there somewhere, all of the communication happens on the Tor server.
An example might help explain this.
A lot of news sites take advantage of onion servers.
While you can find things at, say, the BBC website.
The BBC also has an onion site.
It includes the same information as the original site, but the whole thing is hosted on Tor servers.
It’s like a Tor clone of the site.
So, if you live in a country that bans access to the BBC, you can browse it on Tor.
When you do, you never actually connect with the BBC’s official website.
Instead, you’re only browsing info that exists in the Tor ecosystem, and the authorities that have banned access to the BBC cannot see what you have done.
Even if they make the BBC’s URL unavailable in your country, the onion site exists outside of the system that any one country can control.
What Makes Tor Unsafe? (3 Points)
Tor is offering levels of safety that are uncommon for internet browsing.
For anyone who takes privacy and security seriously, it’s promising.
Each of those features provides a lot to protect users, and if I took the time to get into the nuts and bolts of how Tor works, you would find even more layers of protection.
Take multilayer encryption as an example.
You’ve already seen that Tor routes your traffic through multiple servers in order to make it hard to track you.
Each time your traffic goes through a Tor server, it is encrypted again.
With multiple layers of encryption like this, it is virtually impossible for third parties to see what you are doing while browsing Tor.
Despite all of that, Tor’s protection is limited.
Your safety really depends on how you use the tools you have.
And, there are a few ways that Tor can’t really protect you.
These are things to keep in mind when you use it.
Tor is just plain legal to use in a lot of countries.
Countries that more or less have a free internet do not ban the use of Tor.
But, Tor isn’t going to be legal everywhere. More specifically, it exists in a gray area in a number of locations (including Russia, Saudia Arabia, and Iran), and it’s important to understand this risk.
Even when Tor isn’t outright banned, it can be used for activities that are banned, and that could lead to trouble.
Anywhere in the world, if you use Tor for internet activity that isn’t allowed, and you get caught, you will face the legal consequences.
Tor is not a perfect defense.
While it does offer a fair amount of protection against being watched on the internet, it isn’t foolproof.
As an easy hypothetical example, what if someone sees your internet activity over your shoulder and reports you to the authorities?
There’s nothing Tor can do for you in that case.
So, if you’re going to use Tor to download things illegally, it could still end badly for you.
Keep that in mind before you commit to anything and decide how you feel about the risks associated with any given download.
Tor is not a malware screening tool.
It’s a privacy tool.
Ultimately, Tor lets you use the internet as you see fit.
If you use it to download and install malicious software, Tor cannot protect you.
That’s not how it works.
So, let’s take a moment and clarify something.
Tor makes it very difficult for the act of downloading to cause you problems.
While intercepting a download is already hard, doing so with a Tor user is even harder.
The hacker would have to access Tor servers, and the whole thing is complicated.
The real risk comes from installation.
After you have downloaded files, they just sit there.
It’s up to you to do something with the files.
When you do, that’s when problems can happen.
So, in a technical sense, it’s very safe to download with Tor.
It might not be safe to install the thing that you download.
This distinction might seem pedantic, but it’s important in tech terms.
Tor is trying to provide you with a safe internet experience.
It is not trying to secure your entire device.
So, when you read reviews or look up information related to Tor, you’ll see mixed answers, and this distinction is a large part of why.
Tor protects downloads, not installations.
#3 Dark Corners of the Web
It’s time to discuss the elephant in the room.
Tor masks internet activity, and it’s pretty good at this function.
Because it keeps users so anonymous, some are tempted to use Tor to visit darker corners of the internet.
Yes, this is a reference to the dark web.
Now the dark web is not inherently dangerous.
Instead, it’s just the culmination of connected devices and sites that aren’t indexed by mainstream resources, like Google.
Interestingly enough, all of these uncataloged dark web resources are estimated to be several hundred times larger than the traditional internet we all know and use.
So, with that much out there, you’ll get a mix of things that are good, bad, and everything in between.
For any site that is engaged in illegal or dangerous activity on the dark web, there are probably another 10 that are harmless.
The problem with the dark web is that it’s a crapshoot.
You don’t know how safe a site really is.
So, here’s how this all matters with Tor.
Tor makes it relatively easy to access the dark web, and it offers some level of protection.
And while you limit your dark web experience to innocuous activity, it’s probably all going to be fine.
Things are less fine if and when you use Tor to engage in activity that is closely watched.
What is closely watched on the dark web?
It actually depends, and some things can be surprisingly important to government agencies or other parties.
Sometimes, an act as simple as viewing a video can set off red flags.
Now, you might be thinking that Tor is protecting you, so none of this really matters.
The problem is that Tor has been cracked in the past, and it’s safe to assume that it can be cracked again.
For instance, the FBI was able to break through Tor defenses and identify activity that took place on the browser’s servers.
Here’s what that ultimately means.
Cracking Tor activity is difficult, so groups (whether they are government groups or otherwise) are only going to invest the effort if they have a good reason.
The things you might choose to do using Tor could provide that good reason.
For all that Tor tries to protect users, part of it is up to you.
If you draw enough negative attention through your internet activity, virtual protections have their limits.