If you think that “VPN” and “Tor” are interchangeable terms, you would be mistaken. While they do share certain similarities, they do not run the same and are often used for different purposes. Selecting the wrong one for your needs could put your privacy and/or security at risk. Learning the difference, which one is the best, and even how to combine the two for extra security, means you are at less personal risk.
Privacy and anonymity are essential in today’s ever-growing and ever-changing digital age. Paywalls and laws are catching up to user activity faster than ever before. But sometimes the reason for visiting risky websites transcends the law: like when a citizen in an oppressive country wants to read a blog post that speaks against the government, or when a journalist in that country wants access to and protection for dangerous sources.
The level of risk you take doesn’t have to be that high. You’re taking a risk when seeking access to geo-restricted content or downloading P2P files, too. Tor and VPNs offer privacy, security and sometimes complete anonymity to internet users taking various levels of risk. But, they’re only about as similar as oranges and lemons. Both fruits are in the citrus family, just as both Tor and VPNs are tools for privacy and security. But oranges and lemons have very different tastes, and cannot be used interchangeably in every recipe. As you’re developing the recipe for optimal internet privacy and security in your household, don’t consider “Tor” and “VPN” interchangeable.
What Is a VPN?
“VPN” stands for ‘virtual private network,’ which means exactly what it seems to. A VPN service provides a network of servers located in different countries that act as proxy servers to help users mask their location and keep their actual IP address private. As data travels from a computer to the selected server, it is encrypted, or scrambled beyond recognition. So, it is extremely difficult for anyone, like your internet service provider (ISP) or government, to see your internet activity.
VPNs are relatively fast and don’t often affect internet speed, so they are often used while streaming to access geo-restricted content. Many VPN services also allow P2P file sharing on their servers. You cannot torrent for long without privacy (and shouldn’t ever), but speed is also key. There is no faster way to obtain internet privacy than with a VPN.
When considering your internet privacy needs, it’s important to remember that “privacy “and “anonymity” are two different concepts. A VPN most certainly masks your IP address, but you also need to make sure the VPN doesn’t keep any logs of your activity. If they keep logs, then what was the point of being anonymous in the first place? VPNs that hold logs may be required to hand them over. No one wants that.
What Is Tor?
Tor stands for “the onion router.” The name refers to the encrypted layers of privacy protection your data moves through when you use the Tor browser. These “layers” come in the form of encrypted nodes that only know the IP address of the node the information traveled to before it arrived and will travel to after. No one node knows the full route that data travels when using Tor. This is an important distinction to make because the Tor network is made possible by volunteers who offer to route information.
Tor is free, and you don’t have to trust anyone to use it, so you have close to absolute anonymity when you use it (never trust any service that promises extremes). So, you can browse the internet with peace of mind. But, as usual, it comes with a cost – using Tor can cause a large amount of lag time.
Tor is slow because of all the nodes it travels through in order the maintain a private connection. Therefore, Tor shouldn’t be used for P2P sharing or streaming content. Slow speed is never good for streaming, but especially when trying to access geo-restricted content. Another drawback is that a majority of the node locations are in the U.S., so it’s difficult to access geo-specific content in any other region. If you want to stream BBC iPlayer, you might have issues. Lastly, information is decrypted at the “exit node,” the last node on any path before the final location, so be vigilant and make sure that there is no information on your desired website that would compromise your anonymity.
What are the Primary Differences?
The quickest way to understand the differences between the two privacy measures is to see them. Our Tor vs VPN table breaks everything down by feature.
Tor: All nodes in the network are encrypted, except for the last node that accesses the internet, but that node will never know the origin of your IP address.
VPN: Most VPN services offer 256-bit AES military strength encryption over a protocol that supports it, like OpenVPN. It’s military-grade strength, the best available.
Tor: In the node network, run by volunteers, any one node only sees the IP address of the node in front and behind it. No one node knows the full path of your data, it’s one of the best ways to achieve anonymity on the internet.
VPN: As most VPN services require payment, they aren’t completely anonymous. You have to trust your service and the privacy laws in the country of its origin to protect your identity. However, many offer payment opportunities via PayPal and even Bitcoin, which offer a bit more anonymity than a credit card payment.
Tor: Because data is rerouted through so many encrypted nodes when you use the Tor network, it’s slow.
VPN: When using a VPN, you make one connection between your computer and an encrypted server, making it a lot faster. However, keep in mind that if there are many users on one server, there may be a minor drop in speed. But, you can always change the server.
Tor: Most of the servers in the Tor network are located in the U.S., so if you live outside the States and need to spoof your location, it works though it’s slow.
VPN: Most VPN services have servers all around the world, so geo-spoofing is easy for anyone. Make sure to select a VPN that has dedicated servers in whichever countries you need.
Tor: Its slow speed makes Tor a very frustrating platform for streaming.
VPN: As VPNs sacrifice minimum speed for encrypted protection, you can stream on them.
P2P Sharing (Torrenting)
Tor: You can torrent on Tor, but it’s inconsiderate, as it slows down Tor’s already slow network even more for other users.
VPN: Many VPN services allow torrenting on their servers, but some don’t. If P2P sharing is one of the reasons you need privacy, do your research to find the best service for you.
Which is Better— Tor or VPN?
We used the phrase “Tor vs VPN” when introducing our table for comparison reasons. But the truth is, they aren’t really in competition. As lemons and oranges serve different flavor profile needs, Tor and VPN serve different online security and privacy needs. Both have their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s impossible to choose one over the other. You really must evaluate your specific needs.
VPNs do serve more versatile purposes than Tor, but lack of anonymity is a huge drawback to them. Even if your VPN service is trustworthy, it’s important to make sure privacy laws and log policies favor the user if the government ever requests records. Trust is a big deal, and shouldn’t be given lightly, especially on the internet.
The advantage of Tor is that it provides close to complete anonymity and doesn’t require trusting anyone. However, it’s slow speed means it has limited capabilities. It’s not the best choice for streaming or P2P sharing. Journalists or people seeking reliable information in oppressive countries can trust Tor to safely access websites with reliable information and reliable anonymity.
When we said it wasn’t a competition, we meant it. There are ways to use Tor and VPN together to create an even higher level of security than using just Tor or a VPN alone. But using Tor over VPN is different than using VPN over Tor, and to use either method correctly it’s important to understand their differences and separate purposes.
Tor Over VPN
Tor over VPN refers to a security structure where you connect to your VPN server first, and then to the Tor network before you begin browsing the web. Visually, the configuration looks like this:
Computer – VPN – Tor – Internet
Using this configuration, your exit IP address is the one at the Tor exit node. The benefits of this method are as follows:
- The Tor entry node doesn’t see your true IP address, but that of the VPN server you’re connected to. Especially when a VPN service has a ‘no logs’ policy, this adds a more prominent layer of extra security.
- Access to .onion websites.
- Your ISP won’t know you are using Tor.
It’s also important to consider the drawbacks:
- Tor and VPN don’t always play nice together. Your VPN could interrupt traffic before it is encrypted through Tor, And the Tor browser could interpret VPN proxies as threats, which they are configured to fight against more efficiently than a normal browser.
- There is no protection against malicious Tor exit nodes, so you need to make sure all of your traffic is HTTPS-encrypted, as any other traffic could be monitored. Also, Tor exit nodes are sometimes blocked.
- Your VPN provider knows your IP address (this is the case for any VPN user).
VPN Over Tor
As you may have guessed, using VPN over Tor for extra security begins with connecting to Tor first, and then through a VPN server before finally reaching the internet. Here is the visual path:
Computer – Encrypt desktop with VPN – Tor – VPN server – internet
This configuration is harder to achieve because it requires you to modify your VPN settings to work with Tor. It is only supported by a couple of VPN providers that we know of, but it provides a unique level of security. Using this configuration, your VPN provider doesn’t see your IP address, since you connect to a server through the Tor browser, it sees the address of the Tor exit node. This results in some unique capabilities:
- When you use this method and pay for a VPN with Bitcoins, the provider has no way of knowing your identity, even if it keeps logs.
- This method does provide protection against Tor exit nodes and bypasses blocks. But, your ISP may see you are heading toward a Tor node.
- As you are choosing a VPN server, you can geo-spoof with this method.
- All internet traffic runs through Tor.
There are drawbacks to this method, too:
- You are a bit more vulnerable to a global end-to-end timing attack, as the end source of your IP address can be traced to your VPN provider.
- Your VPN provider can see your traffic, but they can’t trace it to you.
Overall, this method is the closest you’ll get to complete anonymity online.
Making the Right Choice for You
We can provide you the information you need to make an informed decision between Tor and VPN, but we can’t make the choice for you, or definitively call one method better than the other.
The Tor browser and software are free, and Tor provides the closest thing to actual anonymity that it’s possible to achieve online. This makes it a great choice for anyone seeking dangerous information on the internet. But, Tor’s slow speed limits its capabilities.
VPNs are faster, so they are the better option when you want to stream content online, or use P2P sharing software. They have servers in plenty of countries worldwide, so that makes geo-spoofing easy for anyone, especially U.S. residents who need to access geo-restricted content in another country. But, VPNs are not completely anonymous. You have to trust your VPN provider to protect your identity.
Whatever your choice, pick one. Both provide online security and safety, which is essential for everyone in today’s fast-paced digital age.