Don't Debug with Onion.totor tor2web tor-browser
This post first appeared on my old blog in December 2016. It is preserved, but maybe not updated, here.
This also applies to onion.cab onion.city, onion.direct, and any onion domain
that does not end in exactly
.onion. These are called Tor2Web proxies and they can be very dangerous if
you don't know how they work.
Update 4 (June 2019):
- Many Tor2Web proxies are doing the malicious things I talk about in this post (archive)
- I've seen Tor2Web proxies that seem to have manually added v3 onion support for themselves (since, as far as I know, Tor Project hasn't done it and won't do it). I can't name any.
- There's nothing special about the word "onion" in the domains these Tor2Web proxies often use. "Onion" only makes using them a little easier as the user merely needs to add ".to" or similar to the end. darknet.to is apparently a Tor2Web proxy, as is/was tor2web.org and s1.tor-gateways.de. Random Reddit user as source.
Update 3: Tor 0.3.2.9 was the first stable version that ended up having support for v3 onion services.
Update 2: Tor 0.3.1.x (stable release scheduled for late 2017) adds the "next generation of onion services." This new type of onion service will not even work with Tor2Web proxies. If you're reading this far in the future (late 2017 or later) and you're visiting an onion domain that's really long (50+ characters instead of only 16) then keep in mind that this post only applies to the current type of onion services with short addresses.
Update 1: due to some confusion on Reddit, here's some explicit examples.
<anything>.onion.link/blah.php is bad because it's going through a Tor2Web
<anything>.onion/blah.php is good because it isn't. It's normal. Use this.
Why they exist
They exist so people can access onion services without using Tor. That's it. If the user doesn't know all the caveats that come along with that benefit, then she is probably really hurting herself. And if the user is already using Tor Browser, there is no valid reason for her to be using a Tor2Web proxy. Tor2Web proxies are not a troubleshooting step. Please stop using them like one. Please stop suggesting them to people.
Why they are bad
Since the Tor2Web proxy is the one connecting to the onion service for Alice, it gets to see everything. If Alice is visiting a forum or image board, the proxy gets to see all the posts and all the images. If Alice is logging into something, the proxy gets to see her credentials.
Let me repeat that. When you use a Tor2Web proxy, it gets to see EVERYTHING. Your credentials if you sign in. Any cookies. Any uploads you make. All the pages you request and their contents.
Onion Service Enumeration
Tor2Web websites are like regular websites. Like google.com or facebook.com. When the browser gets a request for anything.onion.to, it consults DNS to resolve it. So every DNS server that the computer is configured to talk to (and is told to forward its request onto by its configured servers) will find out that anything.onion exists and someone wants to access it. If the user, Alice, isn't using Tor Browser, then the DNS servers also find out that the someone is her. Not good!
Even if Alice is using Tor Browser, now the Tor2Web proxy knows that anything.onion exists. In fact, many have sold or still sell information on what onion services have been requested through them. For example, see onion.cab's list.
This is very similar to a point made already, but this focuses on the consequences to the user.
The Tor2Web proxy knows someone is interested in anything.onion. If the user isn't using Tor Browser, the Tor2Web proxy also knows the IP of the user. If that's not bad enough, if for some reason the Tor2Web proxy suspects that this anything.onion is (almost) never accessed by anyone else, then it may conclude that the person that just requested the onion service must be the owner.
If anything.onion doesn't work for you, don't go and try anything.onion.to.
If you are using Tor Browser, and have changed network proxy settings like you would in regular Firefox, don't do that! You are probably able to connect to regular websites and anything.onion.to, but you won't be able to connect to anything.onion because you aren't using Tor. You are not being secured by Tor. The only way you should change proxy settings is via the onion button, and you should only do that if your ISP requires it.
If you are using Tor Browser, you didn't change proxy settings, you can access anything.onion.to, you can't access anything.onion, and you're pretty sure Tor/Tor Browser are working fine, then the onion service is probably down. There's nothing you can do about it. The anything.onion.to is just a cached copy of parts of the onion service that the Tor2Web proxy has fetched recently. You aren't getting the real website and you can't interact with it. Poor uptime is a fact of life for most onion services. They are often short-lived, are only up a few hours each day, or both. Most are run by amateurs.
Don't play with your anonymity. Learn a little bit about how things work so you can be safe. Adding something to the end of an onion address sounds like a good easy way to get access to something that isn't working, but it isn't. Slightly changing youtube.com into some other domain name that fetches the video for you so you don't have to sign in to watch something flagged as adult is the same idea, but at least your safety (probably) isn't at risk in that case.