A man using a Chromebook and a smartphone.
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The Tor Project says that you can’t run the full version of the anonymizing Tor browser on a Chromebook. But, by using your Chromebook’s Linux subsystem, you can install and use it very easily. Here’s how.

What Is Tor?

The Tor Project has created a free, anonymizing computer network that anyone can use to maintain their privacy online. The Tor network uses the regular internet infrastructure along with its own overlay network of volunteer-provided Tor nodes. These do the routing for the Tor network traffic. They encrypt your traffic and use other tricks to make back-tracing and identifying your IP address difficult to the point of being almost impossible.

The Tor browser allows you to access websites on the Tor network as well as on the regular web, which is known as the clear web. In both cases, your network traffic is routed over the Tor network. But remember that your traffic has to emerge from the cover of the Tor network to access the website you wish to visit. If the website uses the HTTPS protocol, your connection will still be encrypted and inaccessible to others. If the website uses the older HTTP protocol, your traffic will not be secure. Using a virtual private network (VPN) provides protection for that last step of the connection and is highly recommended.

However, the Tor browser’s main purpose isn’t clear-web browsing. In fact, it would make your connection seem a bit sluggish and would degrade your user experience. Its true purpose is to visit sites on the Tor network itself, which are called onion sites. These have an “.onion” extension and cannot be reached using a regular browser.

The Tor network is a darknet and a part of the dark web. There’s a lot of dreadful content on the dark web. You should only visit the dark web if you have a good or otherwise compelling reason to do so. And there are many valid reasons—the dark web isn’t all bad.

In some repressive regimes, Tor is the only way to reach clear-web websites that have been banned in those countries. Most major newspapers own an onion site on the Tor network so that anonymous sources can deliver stories and tip-offs while remaining anonymous.

How Can You Run Tor on Chromebooks?

The Tor website says that there is no official Tor client for ChromeOS. There is a Tor Android app and, because Chromebooks can run Android apps, you can use that on your Chromebook. However, it’s not ideal. The websites that you visit think that you’re on a mobile device (such as a smartphone). The version of the website that you’ll see is the responsive one. These are tailored for small portrait-mode screens.

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Luckily, there is a simple way to install a genuine Tor browser on your Chromebook. It uses the Linux subsystem for ChromeOS. If you haven’t activated Linux on your Chromebook, you’ll need to do that first.

The Linux subsystem might not be available on older Chromebook models. If the setting described in the next section doesn’t appear in your ChromeOS settings, then sadly, you’re out of luck.

Turning on the ChromeOS Linux Subsystem

First, you’ll need to turn on Chrome OS’s Linux subsystem.

Click the notification area (system tray) to open the Settings menu and click the cogwheel icon.

The ChromeOS settings menu

On the Settings page, type “linux” into the search bar.

ChromeOS settings page with "Linux" in the search bar

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Click the “Turn On” button beside the “Linux Development Environment (Beta)” entry.

A confirmation window will appear to let you know that a download is about to happen.

Confirmation dialog for the ChromeOS Linux installation

Click the “Next” button to move to the next page.

Setting a user name in the ChromeOS Linux installation

Enter a user name, and leave the disk size option at the default setting. Click the “Install” button to start the installation process. This will take a few minutes. When the setup completes, you’ll see the Linux terminal window and a command prompt with a blinking cursor.

Note that the command prompt includes the user name you chose earlier. In this example, it was “dave.”

The ChromeOS Linux command prompt

To find out a little bit about the Linux environment we’re running in, type this command and then hit the “Enter” key. You’ll need to hit the “Enter” key each time you enter a command in the terminal window.

cat /etc/os-release

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Some interesting information is displayed for us. The most important thing is that we now know which version of Linux this subsystem is based on. It’s Debian Linux. Debian uses the APT software installation system, or “package manager,” in Linux-speak.

We will use APT to install the Tor browser.

Installing the Tor Browser

Copy and paste the next line into the terminal window. Note that if you’re using the keyboard to paste into the terminal window, the keystrokes are “Ctrl+Shift+V”, not “Ctrl+V.”

When we tell the APT system to install a package for us, it searches through several locations to try to find the package. This command sets up an additional location for APT to search.

echo "deb http://ftp.debian.org/debian buster-backports main contrib" | sudo tee /etc/apt/sources.list.d/backports.list

Now, we’ll tell our Linux subsystem to check for any updates.

sudo apt update

When that command completes, we’ll install the Tor browser launcher. Cut and paste this command into the Linux terminal window, and then hit “Enter.”

sudo apt install torbrowser-launcher -t buster-backports -y

You’ll see a lot of output scrolling past and a text-based progress bar at the bottom of the window. You might be prompted to confirm that you’re sure that you wish to install the launcher. If you’re prompted, press “Y” and hit “Enter.”

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When the installation completes, we can launch the Tor browser launcher.

What we’ve installed is a small program that downloads the actual Tor browser installation files, checks the integrity of the download against signatures and checksums, and, if all is well, installs it for us.

torbrowser-launcher

Wait for the files to download and install.

A connection dialog box will appear. Click the “Connect” button.

Tor connection dialog window

Wait while yet another progress bar slowly creeps to 100%.

Establishing a Tor connection dialog box

Then, at last, the Tor browser will appear.

The Tor browser

You’ll probably find it convenient to add the Tor browser to the pinned apps on your shelf. Right-click the Tor browser icon on your shelf and select “Pin” from the context menu.

To launch the Tor browser in the future, just click the icon on your shelf.

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There will be a short delay while it gets prepared and configures itself, and then the Tor browser will launch.

Making Tor Safer on Chrome OS

Let’s increase the security level of the browser. Click the three-line menu icon at the top right of the browser window.

From the menu, select “Preferences.”

Preferences option in the Tor browser menu

When the settings window appears, click “Privacy and Security” in the list of options on the left-hand side of the screen. If you have the browser window set to a narrow width, the option is replaced by a padlock icon. Set the “Security Level” to the “Safest” setting.

Safest option selected in the Security Privacy settings

Now that you have the Tor browser configured, you’re good to go and visit onion sites. But where are they? Well, it’s a little bit Catch-22. If you know why you need to be on the dark web, you should know where you need to go to.

The dark web doesn’t have an equivalent to Google. At least, there’s nothing that you can trust that won’t point you to fake sites and endless scams. So you can’t search for a topic and get a list of links to different sites. This isn’t the clear web.

But the only way to prove that your Tor browser is functioning correctly is to visit some onion sites. So here are some safe ones.

  • DuckDuckGo: The privacy-focussed search engine. This still only searches the clear web, of course. Find it at https://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/
  • CIA: The Central Intelligence Agency’s onion site. It’s at  http://ciadotgov4sjwlzihbbgxnqg3xiyrg7so2r2o3lt5wz5ypk4sxyjstad.onion/index.html/
  • New York Times: The New York Times maintains several onion sites. This site provides its news to anyone who can reach it, including from regions where outside news is banned:   https://www.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/
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For maximum security, use the Tor browser with a VPN (ExpressVPN is our favorite), and only go onto the dark web with a specific purpose in mind. Casual tourism doesn’t count.

Our Favorite VPN

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is our top VPN pick. It has a Chrome OS app that will protect Linux apps like the Tor browser, too.

 

Dave McKay Dave McKay
Dave McKay first used computers when punched paper tape was in vogue, and he has been programming ever since. After over 30 years in the IT industry, he is now a full-time technology journalist. During his career, he has worked as a freelance programmer, manager of an international software development team, an IT services project manager, and, most recently, as a Data Protection Officer. His writing has been published by  howtogeek.com, cloudsavvyit.com, itenterpriser.com, and opensource.com. Dave is a Linux evangelist and open source advocate.
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