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How to use Tor browser (and why you should)

If you want the highest level of privacy and security with your web browser, you should be using Tor.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Reviewed by Min Shin
Tor browser

A while ago, I wrote a piece on the best way to ensure your privacy with a web browser. A part of that advice was to use the Tor browser. In simplest terms, you cannot get more privacy and security from a web browser than when using Tor. And given how important privacy and security is now, Tor should be on your radar.

Also: The best browsers for privacy

The Tor browser uses the Onion network to ensure privacy and security. What is the Onion network? First off, Tor is short for "The Onion Router". When using the Onion network, all traffic is encapsulated in layers of encryption, which are transmitted through a series of nodes called "onion routers". As the traffic passes through a node, it peels away a single layer that reveals the next destination for the data. This makes it very difficult for a third party to trace your internet activity (more than any other browser).

Now that you know what Tor is, let me show you how easy it is to use. 

How to connect Tor to the Onion network

What you'll need: The only thing you'll need is Tor Browser installed on your desktop or mobile device. I'll demonstrate Tor Browser on Linux, but the platform you use won't matter. You can download the Tor Browser for your desktop from the official download page. The link for the Android version will take you to a page with downloads for .apk files. On that same page, you'll find a link to the Google Play Store Tor entry. I would suggest installing Tor on Android from the Google Play Store.

Also: Your guide to the dark web and how to safely access .onion websites

When using Linux, you can also install Tor from the standard repositories, which means it should be available to install from your desktop app store.

Once you have Tor installed, proceed to step one.

1. Open Tor Browser

The first thing to do is open Tor Browser, which you can do from your desktop menu.

2. Connect to Tor

If you've installed Tor on Linux from the standard repository, when you first launch it, it will automatically download the latest version of Tor for you. 

Once opened, you'll see a button labeled Connect. When you open Tor, it is not set to automatically connect to the Onion network. Until you connect to the Onion network, the Tor browser cannot be used. I would suggest enabling the connection automatically by clicking the checkbox labeled "Always connect automatically". Once you've done that, click Connect and Tor will work its magic. 

Also: This might be my new favorite browser 

The connection won't happen immediately, so give the browser time to complete the process. If you find Tor cannot make the connection, close the browser and try again. I've had to do this task almost every first time I've launched Tor. The next time you open Tor, it shouldn't have any problem connecting.

Once Tor is connected, you can start using it as you would any browser.

The Tor network connection window.

Enable automatic connection after you're certain Tor works as expected.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

3. Resolve Error: Forbidden

I have discovered, however, that some sites cannot be viewed with Tor browser. For example, when attempting to view ZDNET.com, Tor displays a 403 Error: Forbidden. Your client does not have permission to get a URL from this server

Should that occur, click the padlock icon to the left of the URL in question and, from the popup, click New Circuit for this Site. Once the new circuit is created, the site should load as expected.

The site-specific drop-down menu in Tor.

Fixing the 403 error.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

And that is the why and how of using the Tor browser. Even though you'll find it slower than your average browser, the added privacy and security you get from Tor is very much worth the reduction in speed. 

Also: The easiest thing you can do to keep your phone secure

I use Tor when I require heightened security for a particular site or service (otherwise, I just use Firefox). Give this browser a try and see if you don't find the added privacy and security worth the effort.

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