If you need to surf the web anonymously you will likely have come across two options: Tor and VPNs. Both services offer increased security and anonymity when browsing but do so in different ways.
Before deciding which is best for you, you need to ask yourself a few questions such as “What type of content will I be browsing?” and “What is more important, security or anonymity?”.
Depending on the answer to this question, the winner of the question of Tor vs VPN will be very different.
Top Rated VPN Providers
VPN use is certainly a lot more common than Tor and it is fairly likely that if you are reading this article, you have some idea about what a VPN does. However, just in case, here is a quick rundown of how a VPN works and what it does.
When you use a VPN to connect to the internet, your data passes through an encrypted tunnel to a VPN server in another location. After this, your data then travels onto the website you want to access and back again, via the VPN, to your computer.
This has two main uses:
- 1) The fact that your traffic goes through an encrypted tunnel means that it is very hard for people spying on your traffic to know the data you are sending. This really comes in useful if you are browsing the internet on an unsecured public network where you don’t really know who else has access to the connection. It also means that your ISP won’t be able to see what you are browsing.
- 2) The fact that your data travels through a VPN server means that your real IP address will be hidden and in its place will be the IP address of the VPN server. This can trick websites into thinking that you are browsing the internet from another location. For example, if you connect to a server in the US, you will be able to access content that is geo-restricted in other countries.
There are a couple of downsides. If you don’t choose a reliable VPN service, then you may be passing all your data through a server that might be stealing your data (this isn’t common, but it can happen). Because of this, it is absolutely crucial to choose a good, reliable VPN provider when using a VPN.
Of course, choosing a VPN provider can cost money. While it isn’t much (usually under $10) a month, it is more expensive than simply not using a VPN or using Tor.
If money is an issue, you may be tempted into using a free VPN. While this certainly seems like a good option on paper, in reality, a free VPN is far more likely to be stealing your data than a paid for VPN. You will also likely find that the service provided isn’t as good as with a paid VPN.
The other downside is that when compared to Tor, a VPN isn’t quite as anonymous. This means that if anonymity is the most important thing, you should perhaps use Tor instead of, or with, a VPN.
As well as this, a VPN (or at least, a trustworthy VPN) will offer better security as you don’t have to worry about your data being stolen as it leaves the VPN server. If this is something you are worried about, then using a VPN will be your best bet.
- Offers better security than TOR
- Allows you to watch geo-restricted content
- Connection will likely be faster than Tor (although slower than if you connected without using anything)
- A good VPN will cost money
- Only passes data through one server so can be less anonymous than To
Tor (known as ‘The Onion Router’) works similarly to a VPN in that your traffic travels through a server and is encrypted before reaching its destination. What is different, however, is that your traffic is passed through multiple servers before reaching its final destination.
Each node in the Tor trail can only decrypts enough data (that was sent from the previous node) to know where to route the data next. This means that it is very hard to find out the origin of the data (and the destination). Your data is encrypted throughout the Tor journey. This means that it is hard for your ISP or anyone else trying to spy on your connection to see what you are browsing.
The Tor Exit Node
There are, though, some downsides to Tor. Firstly, all your data is decrypted at the final node in the chain, known as the Exit Node. This means that it could be possible for the final Tor server/node to read all your data.
Tor Exit Node
A Tor 'Exit Node' is essential for Tor to work, but also happens to be the weakest link of the Tor network.
The data may not be encrypted as the data leaves the Exit Node, and out into the Internet.
As anyone can run a Tor Exit Node, and you don't know who they are, there is an opportunity for someone with mailicious intent to view your unencrypted data.
Now, there are some things you do to protect yourself from this:
1) Only browse websites that are secured with HTTPS. If you do this then the data is encrypted anyway, making it very difficult for anyone to see what you are browsing.
2) Make sure that you never send private data that could identify you when using Tor.
3) Use the Tor browser for extra security. It will try to use the more secure HTTPS protocol whenever possible.
4) Use a VPN with Tor. More on this further below
The second downside to Tor, and it’s a big one, is that if you want to access location blocked video content (in fact any web browsing, really), using Tor can really slow down your connection. The fact that your data goes through so many servers positively makes your connection more anonymous but negatively means that your data has to travel a long way (and partially needs to be decrypted and encrypted again at each hop - adding latency) before reaching its destination.
This means that your connection will likely be much slower than if you simply use a VPN to secure your data. If you plan to stream video then really you should be using a VPN as the experience likely won't be very good when watching through Tor.
However, if you are after a fairly high degree of anonymity while browsing, then Tor is a great option. The fact that it passes your data through so many different nodes (encrypting and encrypting) before reaching the website means it is incredibly difficult for anyone to track your browsing. It's just a shame about the Exit Node.
- Hides your IP address which makes it very difficult for anyone to see your browsing
- Allows you to access geo-restricted content
- The fact that your data is routed through a number of relays before reaching the website makes it slower than using a normal connection
- Traffic at the Exit Node is unencrypted which means anyone running that node can see your traffic if you aren’t using secured websites
- Tor is often blocked by websites
What About Tor And VPN Combined?
It is possible to use both Tor and a VPN together. While not necessary for most browsing it can add an extra layer of protection to your browsing if used properly. Be aware that using both technologies together will likely be a slow experience, albeit pretty damn secure...
There are two ways to do this:
Using A VPN First, Then Tor
If you set up your connection this way your data will pass through your VPN before accessing the Tor network. The main advantage of this is that your ISP will not be able to know that you are using Tor.
However, with this setup, you still have the problem of your data being decrypted at the final Tor Exit Node.
Using Tor First, Then A VPN
If you use this method, your VPN will surround all your Tor browsing. Your VPN will encrypt your data before it enters the Tor network and ensure it is still encrypted when it passes through the Tor Exit Node. By doing this, it means that it is pretty much impossible for a malicious node operator to see your data.
However, while this is secure, it is an option that is only available on a handful of VPN providers. As such, unless you are using one of these VPN providers you have to use the first method (connect to VPN then Tor).
Tor vs VPN Conclusion
While both a VPN and Tor promise to help anonymize your browsing and add some security to your internet use, whether Tor or a VPN is better for you depends on what you plan to use the service for.
If you want to watch videos or keep your data as secure as possible, then a VPN is the way to go. On the other hand, Tor is best if you want to be as anonymous as possible when browsing the net.
Hopefully, this article has cleared up some of the issues surrounding whether you should use Tor or a VPN for your browsing. If you have any questions, please ask them using the comments section below!