For a lot of people, the security of their online presence matters. If you are one of these people, you have probably taken or are planning to take the necessary measures to secure your online activities. Making use of a VPN to connect to the internet is one major way to gain security and privacy online, with the Tor Browser being an alternative.
These two technologies share some similarities in how they operate, making people want to know which one of them is preferable for securing their online presence. By the end of this article, you would understand how they operate and be able to choose the most suitable for your needs. First, let’s talk about what these two technologies are.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It is a technology that protects your online presence by routing your internet connection through a server and masking your IP address. It further encrypts your online communication.
A VPN makes use of a network of computers to re-route traffic going and coming from your device. These computers are usually located in various countries around the world. Any information going out of your device passes through the VPN server you are connected to first, before getting to its destination. The same goes for any data coming in. It passes through the VPN server before reaching your device.
Your online destination only sees the traffic coming from the VPN server and not your device. This means that your current location remains unknown while you receive and send data. While the VPN has a lot of sides to it, the most important concept to security-conscious users is that it encrypts information sent from devices, preventing unwanted access to it.
What is Tor?
Tor is a free browser that is common among internet users visiting .onion websites. It allows users to surf the internet anonymously by routing traffic coming from the user’s device through several servers managed by volunteers in the Tor network before it gets to its destination.
Now you are probably thinking, “but that’s the same as a VPN.” It isn’t as there are key differences between the two. While a VPN focuses on privacy, Tor focuses on anonymity. Let’s see how Tor works.
How Tor Works
To know how to use Tor, it’ll go a long way to understand how it works. First, you need to download its free browser or a browser that is Tor-enabled. The Tor browser is available for different operating systems, you will even find Tor for android and Tor for iPhone devices.
When your device sends out information with the Tor browser, the following takes place:
- The browser selects three random servers from the Tor network.
- The browser creates a path between these servers.
Next, it encrypts the information such that only the server connecting to the public internet(the exit node) can decrypt it. It repeats this step for the middle server, as well as the first server(the guard node). This means the information has now been encrypted thrice.
Once that has been completed the Tor browser sends the information to the first server—the Guard node. The Guard node then removes the first layer of encryption. Of course, the message is still twice encrypted and cannot be seen by the server. But the location of the next server is included in this layer, so the Guard node forwards the encrypted information to the location of the middle server.
The middle server, just like the Guard node, strips of the second encryption layer revealing the address to the Exit node and the information being sent with the last layer of encryption. The middle server then sends the information to the Exit node, which then removes the final layer of encryption.
At this point, the information sent is visible. But because the information was routed through those servers, the exit node does not know the location of the device that sent it. No single server can know both the location of the device and the content. The Guard node knows the location of the device, but not the content. The Exit node can see the information sent but doesn’t know the location of the device. This, in effect, creates anonymity for the user.
Pros & Cons: VPN and Tor
Technologies will always have their best use cases, advantages and disadvantages. In this section, you’ll learn about the most appropriate situations to use any of the VPN or Tor connection.
Advantages of a VPN
VPN has a lot of advantages, but these are some of the most crucial as regards online security:
- It’s faster: Contrary to popular myth, a VPN is significantly faster than Tor even for torrents. Unlike Tor that routes traffic through several computers before finally sending it to its destination, VPNs encrypt and direct your traffic to a dedicated server before then passing it on to its destination.
- Encryption: All data passing through the VPN’s server is encrypted. This means your ISP cannot see what you are doing. This especially important when sending sensitive information through the internet.
- Device-wide protection: Unlike Tor in which access is limited to just the Tor browser and other Tor-enabled applications, a VPN can protect all internet traffic from and to your system provided you install a system application and not a browser extension which would only secure traffic from the browser.
- Accountability: VPN services are provided by dedicated companies that can be asked for support or held responsible for any problems. This also means that you have to either put up with ads or pay a subscription fee for the service.
- Bypasses geographical restrictions: Just like with Tor above, VPNs also allow its users to access web content that has been restricted due to location.
- Compatible with most devices: VPN services are available for almost all the devices you can use to connect to the internet. There are desktop apps, browser extensions and mobile VPN services available.
Disadvantages of VPN
While VPN has advantages, it also has disadvantages. Here are some of them:
- It’s not entirely free: Quite a number of the available VPN services require subscription fees to make use of them. You can of course get free VPN services that offer services but not as good as the paid ones.
- Logging of browsing history: Many free VPN services log their users browsing details. The risks this would pose to you depends on the length of time and type of logs kept by the VPN service. However, this doesn’t apply to all VPNs as there are several excellent VPN services that don’t keep the connection logs of users at all.
Now let’s go through the advantages and disadvantages of Tor.
Advantages of Tor
Tor has a lot of advantages, but these are some of the most crucial as regards online security:
- Hard to shut down: Because of its distributed nature, The Tor network can be difficult to shut down, if not impossible. It is completely decentralized and has no central point where an attack can be launched.
- Masks your IP: After routing your traffic through several servers, the IP address of your device becomes ‘lost.’ Only the Guard node on the Tor network knows your IP address. The middle server and the Exit node are kept entirely in the dark and are only passed the encrypted message.
- Bypasses geographical restrictions: Web content previously inaccessible in your location can be accessed with the Tor browser using the Tor network. The website you are visiting would only see the IP address of the exit node, not yours. So the exit node’s IP address is what the website would use to determine your eligibility as a visitor.
- It’s free: The Tor network is run by volunteers around the world, so there are no fees to pay, or ads to put up with.
Disadvantages of Tor
While Tor has advantages, it also has disadvantages. Here are some of them:
- It is slow: The main problem of using Tor is that it is slow. The traffic from your device is routed through three computers before getting to its destination. The speed of your connection is then dependent on the computer with the slowest internet connection on the network. This makes things like streaming and video calls next to impossible on the Tor network.
- Lack of accountability: Because of its decentralized nature, problems with the network would be challenging to deal with as there is no one to complain to or report to.
- Limited access points: The Tor network is only accessible through the Tor browser or applications with Tor access built in. So all online activities you want untracked has to be done with the Tor browser.
- It draws attention: Tor is mostly used by people with very sensitive information to hide. Your ISP can see that you are using Tor even though they can’t know what you are doing. Constant use of Tor can potentially draw the attention of the government to you.
- Your privacy is not guaranteed:It is much like a free VPN in terms of levels of security. Use it at your own risk.
Which is Better?
Although the answer to this question depends on the nature of your online activity, VPN is more practical and can be used in situations that require a fast internet connection such as video streaming and video conferencing. It’s also more secure than the Tor network.
However, the Tor browser may be a better option in scenarios where anonymity is the only factor you are considering, and you are willing to let go of the fast internet speed you’d enjoy with a VPN.
Combining Tor and VPN
You can’t eat your cake and have it they say, not in this case as you can combine both for maximum security and complete anonymity. You can do this by either setting up a VPN on your device and then using the Tor browser with it, or installing a VPN extension on the Tor browser.