Tor browser splash screen on Ubuntu desktop

Surf with anonymity using the Tor browser. Here’s how to install Tor on a Linux desktop. Ubuntu users beware: The Tor project recommends not installing Tor from Ubuntu’s regular software repositories.

What Is Tor?

In casual speech, we use the terms “internet” and “web” interchangeably. But actually, the web and the internet are two very different things. If websites were premises—shops, factories, entertainment centers—the internet would be the roads and highways linking them together.

The internet supports many services. The world wide web is just one of them. Other services like email, RDP, DNS, NNTP are delivered over the internet, and none of these are websites.

Overlay networks also make use of the internet. The Tor (The Onion Router) network is one such overlay network. It provides anonymity and privacy to users. With Tor, if you use it effectively, no one can trace your activity back to your IP address.

The traffic that passes along the Tor network is encrypted. Whilst this helps preserve the anonymity of the people using it, the encryption causes a networking problem. The regular routing and switching elements of the internet cannot work with Tor network traffic.

A network of Tor relays, hosted and maintained by volunteers, performs the switching and routing instead. The Tor relays intentionally bounce your connection between multiple relays, even if that routing is not required to reach your destination. This “bouncing” is another reason Tor makes it virtually impossible to back-track and identify the person at the far end.

It is the strength of that anonymity that has lead to the Tor network being used to host many web sites that engage in criminal activity. The Tor network forms a large part of the dark web. It’s not all illegal activity on the Tor network, however. Dissidents in repressive regimes, anonymous press sources, whistleblowers, activists, and the military all use Tor for legitimate reasons.

The trouble is, precisely what makes it an attractive proposition for those people also makes it an attractive proposition for the bad guys.

Tor hidden services have addresses ending in the “.onion” suffix. They won’t show up on Google, and they cannot be viewed or accessed using a normal internet browser. You must use the Tor browser to visit those sites, but you can also use it to access normal websites with additional anonymity.

RELATED: How to Access .onion Sites (Also Known as Tor Hidden Services)

How to Install the Tor Browser

Note that the Tor Project advises against installing pre-packaged versions of the Tor browser from the Ubuntu repositories, saying they “have not reliably been updated” by the Ubuntu community in the past. Only install it from the official Tor Project website. The Tor Project also offers official repositories for Ubuntu and Debian, but the following manual instructions will work on any Linux distribution.

Browse to the Tor project download page and click on the penguin.

Tor browser download page

If your browser offers to open or save the file, choose the save file option.

Open or save file dialog

Let’s assume the file is saved to the Downloads directory.

When future versions of the Tor browser are released the version numbers in the filename will change. Also, part of the filename indicates the language.  In this example, “en-US” means English, US.

If you’ve downloaded a different language version, or you’re following these instructions at a point in the future where the browser version has changed, substitute the file names and directory names that you are actually working with for the file names and directory names used in these instructions.

Downloaded file in the downloads directory

The downloaded file is a .tar.xz file. We need to uncompress and untar it so that we can use its contents.

RELATED: How to Extract Files From a .tar.gz or .tar.bz2 File on Linux

There are several ways to do this. If you right-click on the file, a context menu will appear. Select “Extract Here” from the menu.

Right click context menu

If your context menu does not have an “Extract Here” option, close it and double-click the downloaded file. Your file manager might extract the file contents for you.

If that doesn’t work, open a terminal window in your Downloads directory and use the following command. Note that the “J” in xvJf is in uppercase.

tar -xvJf tor-browser-linux64-8.5.1_en-US.tar.xz

tar -xvJf tor-browser-linux64-8.5.1_en-US.tar.xz in a terminal window

So, one way or another, the file will be uncompressed and untarred for you. A new directory will be created in the Downloads folder.

New folder in the downloads directory

Double-click the new directory so that the file manager changes into that directory. Like Russian dolls, there’s another directory inside the first one.

Inner directory in the Downloads directory

Run From the Directory or Do a System Install?

You have a choice here.

Now that you have downloaded and extracted the Tor browser, you can go ahead and use it, with no further installation steps. Or you can perform a tighter level of integration with a system level installation.

The operation of the Tor browser is identical in both cases, and security updates and bug fix patches will find and update the browser either way.

You may prefer the Tor browser to have as light a touch on your computer as possible. If you feel happier without embedding the Tor browser into your system that’s perfectly fine. You will be every bit as anonymous and protected when you use it directly from this directory as you are when you use it after a system level installation. If this is your preferred approach, follow the instructions in the section titled Using the Tor Browser From the Tor Directory.

If you’d like the Tor browser to be recognized as an installed application by your desktop environment and have it appear in the application menus and application searches, follow the instructions in the section titled System Level Integration.

Using the Tor Browser From the Tor Directory

To start the Tor browser directly from the directory, open a terminal window at this location and issue the following command:

./tor-browser_en-US/Browser/start-tor-browser &

Open a terminal window at this location. in a terminal window

You can now skip ahead in this article to the section titled How to Configure the Tor Browser.

System Level Integration

Open a terminal window at this location. To install the Tor browser into a system folder, you’ll need to move this directory, tor-browser_en-US, into the /opt directory. This is the usual location for user installed programs in Linux. We can do this with the following command. Note that you need to use sudo and you’ll be prompted for your password.

sudo mv tor-browser_en-US /opt

sudo mv tor-browser_en-US /opt in a terminal window

The folder will move to the new location and will vanish from the file manager window.  In the terminal window change directory so that you are in the /opt/tor-browser_en-US directory.

cd /opt/tor-browser_en-US

cd /opt/tor-browser_en-US in a terminal window

Using ls to list the contents of this directory we see another directory and a file with a “.desktop” extension. We need to run the “.desktop” file to register the application with your desktop environment.

ls
./start-tor-browser.desktop --register-app

cd /opt/tor-browser_en-US in a terminal window

How to Launch the Tor Browser

The installation sequence described above was tested on the current Ubuntu, Fedora, and Manjaro Linux distributions. Pressing the Super key (the one between the left hand Ctrl and Alt keys) and typing “tor” brought up the Tor Browser icon in all cases.

tor icon in ubuntu

Clicking the icon launches the Tor browser.

How to Configure the Tor Browser

The first time the Tor browser is launched a dialog window appears.

If you access the internet through a proxy, or if you are located in a country that tries to censor the use of tools like Tor, you should click the “Configure” button.

If neither of those applies to you, click the “Connect” button.

Configuration dialog window

Clicking the “Configure” button allows you to set a proxy or to configure a “bridge” to let you use Tor in countries where its use is restricted.

Censorship and proxy check boxes

We’ll look at the censorship options first.

Select the “Tor is Censored in My Country” checkbox. A set of three options will appear.

These options give you different ways to configure a “bridge.” Bridges are alternative entry-points into the Tor network. They are not listed publicly. Using a bridge makes it much more difficult for your internet service provider to detect that you are using Tor.

The first option allows you to select a built-in bridge. Click on the “Select a Built-in Bridge” radio button, and choose one of the bridges from the “Select a Bridge” dropdown menu.

bridge configuration options

The second option is to request an alternative bridge.

Click on the “Request a Bridge From Torproject.com” radio button, and click the “Request a New Bridge” button.

request a new bridge

When you click the “Request a New Bridge” button, you will be asked to complete a Captcha to prove you’re a human.

captcha dialog box

The third option is for when you already have the details of a bridge that you trust and have used before, and you wish to use that bridge again.

Click the “Provide a Bridge I Know” radio button and enter the details of the bridge you wish to use.

provide a bridge I know option

When you have configured your bridge using one of these options, click the “Connect” button to launch the Tor browser.

connect button to launch Tor browser

Configuring a Proxy

If you connect to the internet through a proxy, you need to provide the proxy details to the Tor browser.

Click on the “I Use a Proxy to Connect to the Internet” radio button. A new set of options will appear.

proxy options

If you have set up your own proxy, you will know the connection details for it. If you are on a corporate network or someone else set up the proxy, you will need to get the connection details from them.

You will need to provide the IP address or the network name of the device acting as the proxy, and which port to use. If the proxy requires authentication, you must also provide a username and password.

Click on the “Select a Proxy Type” button to select the proxy type from the dropdown menu, then complete the other fields.

proxy type dropdown menu

When you have configured your proxy, click the “Connect” button to launch the Tor browser.

connect button to launch Tor browser

How to Use the Tor Browser

You will see a progress bar as the connection to the Tor network is established.

Tor browser connection progress bar

Soon you will see the Tor browser main window.

Tor browser main window

If it looks a lot like Firefox, that’s because it is Firefox, tweaked and configured to work on the Tor network.

But be careful. Just because you are familiar with Firefox don’t adjust any of the configuration settings. And don’t install any add-ons. Doing either of these will affect the ability of the Tor browser to mask your identity. And if you do that there’s hardly any point to using the Tor browser in the first place.

You can put any web site address in the address bar, and the Tor browser will happily browse to that web site. But using the Tor browser to do general web browsing will give you an inferior user experience compared to a standard browser.

Because your connection is bounced around the network of Tor relays your connection will be slower. And to maintain your anonymity, certain parts of websites might not work correctly. Flash and other technologies—even some fonts—will be prevented from operating or displaying as usual.

The Tor browser is best reserved for those occasions when you value anonymity above the user experience, and for when you need to visit a “.onion” web site.

How to Access an Onion Site on Linux

Some websites have a presence on the clear web and a presence on the Tor network. The search engine Duck Duck Go does this, for example. The Tor browser has a quick way for you to connect to the Duck Duck Go “.onion” site.

Click on the “New to Tor Browser?” link in the top left corner of the browser window.

New to Tor browser? link

Now click on the “Onion Services” link, then click the “Visit an Onion” button.

visit an onion link

You will be taken to the Duck Duck Go “.onion” site.

Duck duck go .onion site

Click on the green onion logo in the site information field, and you’ll see the route your connection has taken to the “.onion” site you’re currently viewing.

 

green onion logo in the Tor browser address bar

The route your connection has taken is called its “circuit.” In this example, the route starts in the UK, and goes via France to the US, and then through another set of unnamed relays before finally arriving at the Duck Duck Go “.onion” site.

relay circuit for .onion routing

Click on the shield icon in the top right of the browser toolbar to see your current security level.

security level for the current connection

If you want to change your security level, click on the “Advanced Security Settings” button.

You can set the security level to be Standard, Safer, or Safest. Each increase in security further reduces the number of website features that will continue to operate correctly.

Tor browser security settings

You can browse the internet and find lists of other “.onion” sites, but this is a dangerous practice. Many of these will host material which is considered illegal, will leave you wanting to bleach your eyes, or both.

A better approach is to discover whether sites you already use and trust have a “. onion” presence on the Tor network. You can then use those sites with anonymity.

Honest and legal sites that value privacy and security and make it a mainstay of their customer offering are likely to provide a “.onion” site so that they can be reached using the Tor browser.

ProtonMail, for example, claims to have been built from the ground up with security and privacy in mind. They have a “.onion” site to allow their users to connect to them with added privacy. Of course, that link won’t work in a regular browser window.

And Yet More Anonymity

If even the Tor browser doesn’t provide enough anonymity and privacy for you, another project that uses Tor at its heart might be what you need.

Tails is a live operating system that you can run from a USB flash drive, SD card, or even a DVD. You can carry it with you, and use it from (almost) any computer. You don’t need to install anything, and you’ll leave no digital footprints.

Be Careful Out There

Be cautious, be careful, be wary, and be safe.

When you veer off the clear web and into the shadows, you must always think before you click.

Dave McKay Dave McKay
Dave McKay first used computers when punched paper tape was in vogue, and he has been programming ever since. He is now a Data Protection Officer and has worked as a freelance programmer, manager of an international software development team, and an IT services project manager. Dave is a Linux evangelist and open source advocate.
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