The thought of protecting yourself from hackers, spies and malicious attacks should always come to your mind when you connect to the Internet. This is the main goal of both Tor and a VPN. But how much do you really know when you talk about Tor vs VPN?
When it comes to ensuring that our personal information and online activities remain private, VPNs and Tor are the most powerful tools you can use. Both share striking similarities, but it’s their differences that make them useful in niche situations. Whether you’re going around a geoblock or navigating the dark web, you need to know which choice is the right one for what situation.
What is Tor and how does it work?
Tor, short for The Onion Router, is free software that provides a hidden traffic service, protecting your identity by encrypting your online traffic and routing it through multiple volunteer-run nodes.
Each node benefits from multi-layered encryption, which allows the network to see only the IP address of the node before and after it. The exit node is also visible and the only one that can see your encrypted data.
Since the nodes are run by volunteers, anyone is free to set up an exit node. The problem with this is that a poorly designed node can collect private information that can remain visible to hackers and spies. Tor prevents all browsing activity from being fed back to you, but anyone can see your traffic once it leaves the network. Everything except where it starts, that is.
To protect your privacy, you should avoid sending private messages and other sensitive information through your connection.
Tor will map a path that starts from your device and takes you through two randomly selected nodes, until you finally come to an exit node. Prior to sending your data packet to the first node, Tor applies three layers of encryption.
The first node on the journey removes the outermost layer, the layer that knows where the data packet is going. The second node repeats this process and sends your data packet to the exit node of the network.
The exit node removes the last layer and reveals all the information that the data packet carried. To keep hackers guessing, Tor will keep using the same three nodes for up to 10 minutes before creating an entirely new, random route for your traffic.
The advantages of Tor
- Tor is 100% free, making it the most cost-effective solution for your security.
- No logs or records are kept within the Tor network. You don’t have to sign up and you don’t have to worry about your financial information being released when you use the software.
- Tor doesn’t have to worry about it ever shutting down. All the nodes are scattered all over the world, making it virtually impossible to ever be in danger of being deleted. Since there is no main server, it remains free from attacks and incursions from malicious entities and legal authorities.
What are VPNs and how do they work?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) provides end-to-end encryption from your device to a remote server in any country where a server is available. While using a VPN, your IP address is hidden, making it seem like you are accessing the internet from the remote server’s location rather than your actual location.
You need to choose a provider, create an account, launch the client from your device, log in and then select the appropriate server. A suitable server depends on your needs. For a more secure and faster connection, a server nearby is preferred. If you want to bypass region-blocked content, connect to a server in another country with less restrictions.
Once connected, all data is encrypted before being routed through your chosen server. The data then goes through the tunnel to the website you are trying to access. Your IP address will be masked from the website and the IP address will come from the server instead, making your access completely anonymous.
The benefits of a VPN
- All data is encrypted from origin to destination.
- VPNs can slow down or speed up your connection, depending on network congestion and whether your ISP is throttling your bandwidth.
- Technical skills are normally not necessary when it comes to a VPN.
- A VPN can help you bypass geo-blocked restrictions through IP masking. Can’t watch US Netflix while stationed in Korea? A VPN may be able to help you overcome that obstacle.
Tor vs VPN – Joining Forces
By combining both Tor and VPN, you can create a powerhouse of online security and privacy protection. There are two ways to combine a VPN and Tor; either Tor over VPN or VPN over Tor. The choice is determined by your wishes.
Tor over VPN
A VPN connection must first be established before Tor is opened. Doing it this way will allow the VPN to encrypt your traffic before doing business on Tor. This will hide your Tor activity from your ISP.
Your ISP can’t see the data sent through Tor, even though they can still see that you’re connected to it. Since the Tor access node cannot see your real IP address, it will see the IP address of your VPN server, increasing your anonymity.
However, your traffic is not encrypted once it leaves the Tor network, leaving you with no protection against malicious exit nodes. You should still be very careful about sending sensitive information over your connection.
Choose Tor over VPN if:
- You need to hide your use of Tor from your ISP.
- You need to hide your traffic from your VPN provider.
- You do not transmit sensitive information through your connection.
VPN over Tor
Using this method goes in the opposite direction to Tor over VPN. You must first connect to the Tor network before logging into your VPN. This requires you to be technically better, as you need to configure your VPN client to work with Tor.
Tor’s exit node redirects your traffic to your VPN server, eliminating the risk of malicious exit nodes. This happens because your traffic is decrypted after it leaves the Tor network.
The entry node can still see your real IP address, but your VPN will only see the exit node address. This hides the fact that you are using a VPN for your ISP, but they can see that you are on the Tor network. This setup makes it easier to get around geo-blocking, giving you access to some Tor nodes you couldn’t originally.
Choose VPN over Tor if:
- You want to protect your online connection against malicious exit nodes.
- You need to hide your VPN usage from your ISP.
- You intend to send sensitive information through your connection.
- You need to bypass geoblocks.