Like certain dog breeds or brands of German cars, the Tor browser has become guilty by association in the eyes of many people.
The actions of a malignant minority are enough to tarnish an entire brand, and a similar fate has befallen the Tor browser.
To many, this is a portal into an unregulated cesspit of extreme pornography, untraceable cryptocurrencies and political dissidents.
Of course, to others, that’s part of its appeal.
And Tor has undeniably effected positive change since it was co-developed by the American military.
It’s helped to overthrow dictatorships. It underpins much of the investigative journalism in the Sunday papers. It’s endorsed by (and used by) the CIA.
As such, using the Tor browser on a smartphone is entirely legal. It may even be advisable for certain activities. But how does it work? And should you install it?
Tor is a web browser, reminiscent of Millennial interfaces like Netscape Navigator.
However, the way it works is very different to Chrome, Safari or Firefox, which attempt to shave every possible millisecond off the delivery time of individual data packets.
Instead, Tor bounces each data packet across randomly-chosen paths, making it effectively impossible to track who’s viewing what, where, or when.
Content is inherently private – hence its popularity among the internet’s less wholesome denizens.
That shouldn’t detract from the benefits of anonymity. On an insecure public WiFi network, Tor prevents eavesdropping. It’s also great for distributing confidential corporate data.
However, this randomised method of data distribution has one major drawback. It’s extremely slow.
Install, execute, surf
Installing the Tor browser is no different to any other Android or iOS app, though its loading procedure betrays the fact this is no ordinary web browser.
Open it, and you have to click a Connect button. Messages about bootstrapping and exit nodes flash up before you arrive at a blank screen with a Search bar at the bottom.
By default, Tor uses the privacy-oriented DuckDuckGo search engine. This focuses on surface web results – the World Wide Web everyone uses on a daily basis.
Periodically, Dark Web results will appear. These websites aren’t visible to Google or Bing, lacking the user-friendly domain names or .com/.co.uk TLDs we’re used to.
Indeed, the presence of a .onion TLD means sites can only be displayed using the Tor browser, which is uniquely able to process such content.
Tor is painfully slow, and video content is often unwatchable unless your device is connected to fibre broadband or 5G.
However, many familiar principles are retained. Tor has browser windows, settings menus and blue hyperlinks, while your device’s normal swipe/scroll functions still apply.
When you close a browsing session, no data is retained. There are no cookies or page histories stored, and third parties can’t retrospectively view browsing activity.
As such, Tor represents a viable alternative to a VPS in terms of handling secure and confidential web browsing.