A Tor Browser Might Not Be Your Best Solution for Internet Privacy

3 minute read
| Analysis

I’m very privacy-minded. I’ve written quite frequently about securing your browser and network on the Mac. I figure it’s about time to give the iPhone some loving, since there are a number of ways to make sure you have a good experience browsing while keeping things private. Let’s look at some of the methods for doing that and I’ll give you my not-so-humble opinion about which one is best.

Tor browser

If you want to lock up your Internet security and privacy, is a Tor browser really the answer? (Image Credit: HypnoArt

First Things First, Secure Your Network

Before you do anything else, you should make sure your network is secure. This even applies to your cellular network, so you might wonder what you can do about it. One important step is to use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN.

There are plenty of commercial VPNs out there. You could go with TunnelBear, for one, or Astrill VPN. You might also choose to set up your own private VPN for your personal use.

Next, Think About a Tor Browser

If you don’t already know about it, the Tor browser is built from the ground up to anonymize your browsing experience. Tor directs Internet traffic through a worldwidefree volunteer network consisting of more than seven thousand relays, for free. It will conceal a user’s location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis. There are plenty of iOS Tor clients out there, so let’s cover a few of them.

The one thing you’ll need to bear in mind about Tor browsers is that it’s pretty common for major internet sites to blacklist them, forcing you to endure Captchas to no end. From most of my research, including a rare answer from Stack Exchange itself, this is because of the wide variety of nefarious individuals who use Tor to mask themselves as they carry out dastardly deeds on the internet. StackExchange referred to them as “spammers, trolls and psychopaths.”

Black Mesh, a VPN That Redirects You to Tor

The first one isn’t a browser at all, but one that changes settings in your iPhone so that your internet traffic redirects through the Tor network. This is a decent option, but it’s notably slower than my own VPN. I’d give this a three out of five; it does what it’s supposed to, but remarkably slower than most of us would like. To make matters worse, Mr. Whoer reports that the IP address I get through Black Mesh is infected with a Trojan. Black Mesh is available for $1.99 on the App Store.

Red Onion Tor Browser

Red Onion gets its name because Tor was originally an acronym for “The Onion Router.” It redirects your internet browsing through the Tor network, and automatically cleans up cookies when you exit the app. You can also protect your browser with a password or Touch ID, so you don’t have to worry so much about your privacy being invaded through physical access to your device. It’s not perfect, though. Red Onion defaults to use Bing as its search engine, and Google won’t work through the browser at all, in my experience. Also, when you tap inside the address field, it doesn’t highlight the text. This one, too, is blacklisted, according to Mr. Whoer. Red Onion is a 3.5 out of five, in my opinion. The app costs $1.99 on the App Store.

Secret Secure Web Browser

I’ll just call this one the Purple Onion Browser, even though a number of Tor clients have a purple icon. This is another option, and is a bit more feature-rich than some other Tor browsers. It defaults to DuckDuckGo for its search engine, which is good, and allows you to quickly change your identify, if you need to. Secret Secure Web Browser seems a bit faster than other options, but still not as quick as connecting through my VPN and using Safari. Yet again, another Tor browser that shows being infected with some sort of Trojan, and thus blacklisted. Secret Secure Web Browser is, in my estimation, a four out of five. If you want to try it out, this app is free on the App Store.

My Verdict

I’ve tried a number of other Tor browser clients, and the experience was always the same. Browsing was fine, but slow. For my own purposes, I’m going to stick with my VPN connection and use DuckDuckGo for my search engine. That prevents both my internet service provider from tracking me, as well as my search engine. That’s private enough, don’t you think?

5 Comments Add a comment

  1. Hi Jeff. DuckDuckGo is a decent private search engine, but some concerns have been raised about its US location. I recommend StartPage.com. It’s outside US jurisdiction so it is not subject to US laws that provide for National Security Letters and gag orders.

    StartPage.com delivers actual Google results in privacy. (It’s pretty much impossible to search Google via Tor.)

    StartPage uses HTTPS so all an ISP sees is that a user is visiting StartPage. The ISP will not see what a user is searching for while within the protection of StartPage.

    In addition, StartPage offers a free proxy with every search result so users can optionally visit third-party websites through StartPage without anyone, even the ISP, website and its advertising partners seeing them, interacting with their browsers, or being able to infect their computers with malware, spyware or viruses.

    StartPage is the only search engine to offer this free proxy option. It is also the only search engine that goes through an extensive audit to prove its privacy promises. StartPage is certified by EuroPriSe–plus, Edward Snowden has recommended its no-logging privacy.

  2. Thanks, Jeff.

    This addresses one my lingering questions, namely whether or not there was any added value to using TOR on top of a VPN.

    I’ve generally thought of TOR vs VPN, not as mutually exclusive, but as options with little to no additive value, particularly given the performance hit that connection speeds may take with either one of them. As I understand it, TOR primarily anonymises your search activities, but they’re still visible, simply not ascribable to you, whereas with a VPN the real value lay in its encryption of your search, apart from its creating a secure tunnel.

    I’m sure I’ve over-simplified that comparison to the point of bastardisation of truth, however, is the net effect of using both that you’ve now got encrypted and anonymised search?

    Is the performance hit additive (or worse, multiplicative)?

    Thanks for the review.

  3. Jeff Butts

    wab95: The performance isn’t really additive or multiplicative, assuming your VPN server is speedy. I haven’t noticed any significant speed hits when I’m using my VPN. With that said, I have my own dedicated service, not one shared with others.

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