TOR and VPN. Which One Should You Use?

By Jayden Andrews. November 13, 2019

People are spending more and more time on their devices. They use them to shop, browse, communicate, conduct bank transactions, or even work. For this reason, everyone should be concerned about their online privacy. When you use a standard internet connection, any third-party, such as your ISP, government, or attackers, can track down all your online activities including, IP address, personal data, and location. 

If you are afraid of being monitored online, you should put in place measures to ensure your online activities remain private. Two of the most popular choices of protecting your online identity are VPNs and Tor. In some ways, they are much alike. Sometimes, their functions might overlap, and this tends to confuse many users. You should note that they have some significant differences that make them useful in different circumstances. 

In this guide, we will look at how each of these security tools work, which will enable us to identify their relative strengths and weaknesses. Consequently, we will advise on when you should use one over the other.

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What Is Tor?

Tor is the abbreviation for The Onion Router, and it is an anonymity network that allows you to conceal your identity while surfing the internet. Some refer it to as the onion browser because you install it on your device as a browser. Tors mask your online identity by making your IP and location invisible.

The network is popular among users who live in countries with repressive regimes. To these users, Tor allows them to freely express their views, without worrying about being monitored by the government. Besides this, you can also use the Tor browser to access restricted content and keep online activities private. Unfortunately, it can be an attractive tool for criminals who plan to conduct their illegal trades online.

How Does Tor Work?

While Tor encrypts data just like a VPN, it is slightly different in the way it handles encryption. Tor encrypts your connection using multiple layers. You can access the Tor network by downloading their browser for free.

With Tor, your data will pass through at least three servers (nodes) before it gets to the final destination. Since these nodes are selected randomly, the path followed by your data will never be the same.

The route that your data follows until it reaches the final destination is not visible to each of the nodes. You may ask, how? Well, any of the nodes can only see the source of the request and where it is going. The Tor browser can encrypt your traffic using three types of nodes: a guard node, an exit node, and a middle node. Here is how each node works:

  • The guard node is the first to receive the traffic from the Tor software, which it then passes to the next node. This server can only see your IP, but it cannot decrypt your message.
  • The middle node is the second layer of protection. This node will neither see your message nor your IP address.
  • The last node (exit node), where your traffic leaves the network and enters the open internet, will decrypt your data. It can read the message, but it cannot know the sender.

So, it is safe to conclude that the Tor software offers sufficient protection. However, there could be a security lapse if you are accessing an encrypted website (without HTTPs) through the Tor network. The exit node might monitor your online activity like the pages you visit and the messages you send.

Usually, users must consent to run exit nodes. So, it may be safer to use relay nodes alone instead of using the exit node, which can expose you to severe risks. Some governments may run the exit nodes to monitor your online activities.

You should also keep in mind that volunteers run the Tor nodes. So, the number of available servers (nodes) depends on the number of these volunteers. Usually, the more nodes on the network, the more secure the Tor browser.

Tor Advantages

  • The Tor browser uses a routing method that does not reveal your real IP address to services or websites you visit.
  • The Tor is a distributed network operated by volunteers and usually offers several layers of security by routing your traffic through different nodes. Therefore, it is extremely hard for any organization, government, or individual to shut it up.
  • The Onion Router allows you to access geographically restricted content.
  • Finally, the network is free to use.

Tor Disadvantages

Speed – Unlike a VPN, Tor is extremely slow. Your data has to go through multiple nodes, each with varying bandwidth. So, you are at the mercy of the slowest node on the network. For this reason, Tor may not be your ideal tool for streaming high-quality videos or service that requires a high-speed connection.

Exit Node – Anyone within the Tor network can set up an exit node, so criminals or governments can set up these nodes on Tor networks to spy on users. And as you know, the traffic at the last node is not encrypted. So, anyone running the exit node can see your message, especially if you are using an unsecured connection.

Accountability – While you may be happy that you aren’t spending any dime to use Tor, it can also be a source of your troubles. Since volunteers operate the Tor nodes, there is no direct funding to run them, so there may be no accountability.

Risk of Revealing IP or Increased Surveillance – Typically, the Tor network is used by people who want to protect sensitive data. Because of this, you might attract unnecessary attention if you are using it frequently. It may even mark you for surveillance. Peers can also reveal your real IP address.

In addition to the above, you may also get yourself into trouble if you are accessing the Dark Web using the Tor browser.

VPN Overview

A VPN is a technology that protects your online privacy by connecting your device to the internet through a secure tunnel to a remote server. Unlike the Tor browser, a VPN client channels all your data through its network, which can be advantageous to the user. Usually, you choose where you want your traffic to be channeled. This security solution hides your IP address, making it appear as if you are connecting to the internet from the location of the remote server. Your online destination will only see the IP address of the VPN server, not your real location.

Besides this, a VPN provides encryption, which is necessary for optimal online privacy. Premium VPNs use military-grade encryption to secure your data. Think of it this way. A VPN is a tool that locks your data in an impenetrable safe that you can only access it if you have the passcode.

While attackers can theoretically break through the 256-bit AES encryption standard using a brute force attack, they won’t understand even a single bit of encrypted data. For 50 supercomputers that check 10^18 AES keys every second, it would take them 3X10^51 years to comprehend a piece of encrypted information.

The good thing is that this security tool is available for everyone. You might need a VPN if:

  • You want to protect your personal information, such as your online banking details.
  • You live in a country with prolific government surveillance or online censorship.
  • You don’t want your ISP to monitor your browsing activities. Sometimes, they may throttle your connection if you are downloading large files.
  • You want to bypass firewalls and other geo-restrictions to access your favorite content.
  • You want to access a corporate network while traveling.
  • You want to keep your device safe while on a public Wi-Fi connection.
  • You believe in your right to complete online freedom.
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VPNs Advantages

Full Encryption – A VPN encrypts all your data that pass through your device to the VPN server. This way, no one will spy on your connection nor intercept your data. A VPN is useful when you are sending sensitive data, especially if you live in countries with high levels of censorship. Fundamentally, VPNs offer various layers of protection based on the encryption protocol. Premium VPNs often use the OpenVPN protocol because it is the most flexible one and offers the highest level of encryption.

Speed – Since all your traffic will go through a VPN server, you may experience a slightly slower connection because of the encryption. But you shouldn’t worry since it is only by a small amount. In fact, you will hardly notice the difference.

Compatibility – Modern VPNs offer software compatible with most devices. If your device runs Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, or Linux operating systems, your VPN will most likely support it. Some premium VPNs may even provide a program that can run on your set-top box or home router.

Installation – While the technology behind VPNs is usually complex, most VPNs are easy to install and operate. You can activate the software with just a few clicks. In most cases, an installation wizard will set the VPN to start automatically when you turn on your device, so you will always remain protected.

VPNs Drawbacks

While a VPN can protect you against most kinds of surveillance and attacks, it has its downsides, which includes:

Varied Logging Policies – True, a VPN may protect you from government surveillance and cyber-attacks, but your VPN provider may monitor your activities. Some VPNs keep some logs of their users’ activities. In most cases, they keep these records for their own use. Unfortunately, some governments may force these providers to share the logs. So, you should avoid VPNs that store data linked to your IP address. Thankfully, most providers state the type of records they keep on their privacy policy pages.

VPN Software Failures – Though not common, your VPN software may crash for some reasons, thus exposing your identity. To avoid this problem, most premium VPNs include a kill switch feature in their software.

Not Free – Premium VPNs may come at a cost, though usually affordable. Free offers may lure some users, which can put them in trouble. Attackers may set up free VPNs for the purpose of collecting sensitive information from unsuspecting users. Some may even bundle the freeware with malware.

Tor Vs. a VPN: Which One Should You Use?

Both applications offer online protection, but they differ in the way they encrypt your messages. While some users may believe that Tor is a completely anonymous and secure way to browse the internet, it’s not that simple.

With Tor, your traffic passes through at least three servers before it gets to the target destination. Each server decrypts one layer of encryption. So, when the last node peels away the final layer of encryption, your original message is fully decrypted before it gets to its destination. This setup may sound great at first glance, but anyone can set up the exit node. Who knows, your government could set up one to spy on users. With a VPN, your message gets encrypted on your device and relayed to a chosen server in the VPN network.

For this reason, you are much better off using a VPN, as it has more security features, military-grade encryption mechanisms, and more transparency.

Can You Use a VPN and Tor Together?

What about using both technologies together? Some people may prefer to connect their VPN first, and then add Tor on top of it. You may also add a VPN on top of the Tor network. The only challenge is that the latter may require a specific VPN service that supports such a setup.

Tor over a VPN will help you get all the privacy protections of the Tor browser. It will also prevent any Tor node from reading your real IP address and message. Another advantage of using both technologies is that your VPN service will not see what you are doing inside the Tor network.

However, Tor over a VPN comes with its downsides. While using a VPN alone is faster, if you add Tor into the setup, it will slow down your internet. For this reason, using them together is usually discouraged.

Final Verdict

As the digital world continues to evolve, online anonymity and privacy should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Tor and VPNs are both valuable tools you can use to protect your online activities. But a VPN is a more practical solution for everyday use.

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