Internet privacy, security, and freedom are essential commodities for many of us. Whether you are using the internet for work, casual browsing, or online purchases, we all want to know that our online activity is protected and that our personal information is safe. That’s where we turn to software like the Tor browser or a VPN.
While both are privacy-based software, they differ in function. So, do you use Tor or a VPN? Great question! This article will compare Tor and VPNs to find the privacy software that suits your needs.
What is Tor?
Tor, known as The Onion Routing Network, is an open-source network that uses layer-by-layer encryption to provide its users with private web browsing. Tor hides your IP address and browsing activity by redirecting your web traffic through several routers known as nodes.
Tor allows users to access websites that your typical browser can’t open. These websites usually end in .onion (hence the name), and most people know this as the dark web. Onion sites could be a typical news website or a darknet marketplace. No, not those random “red rooms” that Youtubers think are on the dark web. Those are complete urban legends. The idea is still pure anonymity and is often seen as more anonymous than VPNs.
To make your online browsing anonymous, Tor transmits your data across three layers of international proxies before decrypting it at its destination. Here’s how the Onion routing network protects your data:
- Accessing the Tor browser will connect to a public entry point, introducing your data to the Tor circuit.
- Then, your data is encrypted with multi-layer encryption in the middle nodes. While in transit, your data is decrypted layer by layer until decryption is complete.
- Finally, as the last layer of data is decrypted, the data leaves the Tor network via the exit node and is at its final server.
What is a VPN?
VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are privacy tools used similarly to Tor. However, instead of being fully functional browsers, they often add on as attachments to already known browsers. VPNs use different encryption methods to hide or change your location and IP address, thus making your online activity to track. VPNs are not a tool for being anonymous online; they are a part of the puzzle but not your OpSec go-to.
Most VPN providers will have the servers they use to funnel web traffic by camouflaging its initial source. VPNs are usually much faster than Tor because they use a single server, and you can choose the server you want to connect to. Unfortunately, all VPNs that provide premium features require a subscription.
What Are the Differences?
While Tor and VPNs might function similarly, they have a few differences that should influence your decision on which one to use. The most significant difference is that Tor runs its servers through three random servers consistently, run by volunteers. In contrast, a VPN uses a single server or multiple servers selected by the user and maintained by the VPN service provider.
Tor is also free and open-source; you can download and audit it to see if its functions are above board. Specific VPNs have the same features. However, premium VPNs often require you to pay for their services. To fully grasp the differences between the Tor network and a VPN, we should take a look at their pros and cons:
Tor: Pros & Cons
- Tor is free and works on multiple platforms.
- The Tor network is resilient, with over 7000 relays worldwide, making it difficult to shut down.
- Only the entry node knows your IP, ensuring anonymity
- Perfect for getting around block content
- Slightly customizable
- Slightly slow due to the routing process
- File downloading is not suggested
- With HTTPS connections, data is visible on the exit node.
- Restricted access to websites that block Tor
- Unable to control the location of the exit node
As mentioned above, Tor is great for getting around blocked content, but we need to clarify that Tor can also be bad for accessing specific geo-blocked content. This is because of the random node selection. You cannot select the node’s exit point as your data goes through the nodes and relays. Unfortunately, our ability to enter content specific to a single country is uncertain.
VPN: Pros & Cons
- Provide good internet speeds.
- It protects all connections on your device
- Versatile, they are used for more than just internet browsing.
- The best solution to getting around blocked content
- You can choose your IP destination
- Not many website limitations
- You often need to pay for it
- Your VPN service provider might store your IP
- Only connecting to one server
Which One Is Better?
As unique individuals, we all have our preferences. Your opinion on which privacy software is better will depend on what you are looking for and what features you need. If you are looking for anonymity, you should use the Tor Browser instead of a VPN. You can increase Tor privacy by adding multiple Tor bridges even. However, this anonymity will only work for your browsing rather than the rest of your device.
Alternatively, if you are looking for blanket protection for your entire device, then using a VPN is a better decision. You might have to pay for it, but their features are more extensive than Tor’s. Remember that using a VPN will not keep your browsing habits anonymous, nor will it add additional security to non-secure (HTTP) traffic.
Whether you use a VPN or Tor, we suggest you develop good security practices, adding a second layer of protection. If you’re looking for added security, you should always ensure you’re connecting to websites using HTTPS. A VPN is not a replacement for good security practices.
Frequently Asked Questions
No, Tor is not a VPN. However, it functions similarly by encrypting your data in transit to make tracking difficult. Tor functions solely through its browser and for a whole device as well.
Tor routes your internet traffic through three random servers with multi-layer encryption. Proxy routes your internet traffic through one server with encryption.
It depends on what you are using it for. If you want anonymity online, then Tor is perfect. Unfortunately, its privacy software is limited to the Tor browser, whereas a VPN can protect your privacy on your entire device.
Hey there, I’m a dark web geek who’s been around for the last 8 years. More precisely, I’m livedarknet’s senior content writer who’s been writing about darknet marketplaces, tutorials, and cybersecurity stuff for educational purposes.