Anyone who has taken an interest in privacy and anonymity online will have come across both Tor and VPNs, powerful tools in the fight for net neutrality and preserving your right to privacy on the internet.
But choosing between these two technologies, determining their use in certain situations, or learning how to leverage the power of both can be difficult, especially for new users.
Here, we’re going to give you a quick overview of both Tor and VPNs, where you might use one or the other, and scenarios where you may want to leverage both.
A virtual private network, or ‘VPN’, creates a private network from a public internet connection.
VPNs mask your data and personally identifiable information, such as IP addresses, which make it incredibly difficult for the websites you visit and other prying eyes from seeing information about you.
Most people will use a VPN through a dedicated provider, who offer handy and user friendly applications for all major devices, making it incredibly easy to encrypt your internet traffic without any technical knowledge. This is part of the reason that VPNs have become so popular in recent years.
If you regularly use public WiFi networks for work or even private browsing, you should definitely use a VPN service. This is because hackers can read sensitive information you send via public networks, which may include payment and login information.
VPNs are also useful if you’re travelling in a foreign country which blocks services you regularly use, such as Facebook or Twitter, as they can let you bypass national-level restrictions on certain websites.
They can also be used to access services which are geo-restricted, for example US-Netflix or foreign social media sites, allowing you to access that site as if you were in a different supported country.
The Onion Router, or ‘Tor’ project, is an open source network of ‘tor’ nodes which routes user traffic through several locations before reaching its destination. As these nodes are distributed and run independently of one another, they don’t share information or sensitive data.
Just like layers of an onion peeling away, each tor exit node that your traffic is routed through provides an additional layer of protection, obfuscating data which could reveal your true identity, such as IP and DNS addresses. Instead, Tor simply shows the information of the last ‘node’ that your data passed through to any prying eyes.
There are a few limitations of Tor, namely the fact that anyone with enough tech know-how can run a Tor node, and potentially read certain identifiable data if they happen to be the last node your data passes through.
This scenario can be guarded against somewhat by using the official Tor browser from the Tor Foundation, which uses encrypted versions of web pages for most sites. It can also be used to access the ‘deep web’, if a user desires.
As Tor is an open-source network, it can sometimes perform fairly slowly compared to using the normal unprotected web.
Tor is best suited for users who are serious about their privacy, and don’t mind sacrificing a little speed and performance to get it. Whereas a normal VPN service will slow down your browsing almost indistinguishably, browsing over Tor can be a much slower experience.
That said, if your job requires you to share or access information totally anonymously, you might want to explore using Tor.
If your freedom depends on staying private and anonymous online, there may be times you need to use both a VPN and a Tor connection to encrypt your traffic.
For example, if you’re a journalist or you work in the media, there are certain laws about protecting your sources, and a VPN or Tor alone might not cover these instances.
Keep in mind that using both of these protections could slow down your browsing experience, and some sites may not work at all using these methods.
But for the average user, you’re not going to need to use both a VPN and Tor simultaneously. Not only will your internet speed be negatively affected, but you’ll also be required to fill in Captcha forms for most websites and search engines who flag your traffic as unfamiliar – leading to an unpleasant online experience.
Which service you choose will depend on what type of user you are. It’s far easier for beginner users to download a VPN client from a popular provider and encrypt their traffic at the touch of a button.
On the other hand, Tor is better suited to slightly more advanced users, as to leverage the benefits of the Tor network properly you’ll want to make sure you’ve downloaded the official Tor Foundation browser.
Using Tor can slow your browsing speed, and some surface-web sites will block access to traffic coming from a Tor node – so you may be locked out of certain sites. If you use Tor and a VPN simultaneously, your connection will be ultra secure, but likely very slow.
As a result, we would probably recommend most users encrypt their traffic and protect their identity using a VPN service.
To find out more about VPNs and discover some of the most highly rated VPN providers, read more here.