Both Tor and a VPN can greatly help you keep prying eyes away from your online life, but they’re also two very different beasts. Which suits your needs better?
People who want to keep their online activities private are often faced with the question – should I use a virtual private network (VPN) or the Tor anonymity network? What are the advantages and downsides of each? There’s definitely a lot to go through before making a choice. Wait a minute, why pick just one when, perhaps, you can have the best of both worlds? Can you?
First off, though, let’s look at what each of them offers and how they differ.
Tor vs. VPN – how do they compare?
While these are tools used for online protection, it is important to understand that Tor and VPNs serve different purposes.
Tor is focused on anonymity. It relies on a network of servers, known as Tor nodes, which are located all around the world. These servers are set up by volunteer individuals and organizations that allocate their resources, computer and internet bandwidth to support the network operations.
Tor works by connecting you to a random network of, at least, three nodes: an entry node that knows who you are, but not what information you’re reaching; a second node (or more) through which the traffic goes through for added anonymity; and a final exit node that will be directly connected to the page you requested.
Because exit nodes give their own information to reach the final destination, Tor requests volunteers to give special consent to be used on this final step. In a nutshell, if a random Tor user is trying to do any kind of illegal activity, it will be the person volunteering the Exit Node that might be identified as the abuser.
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For most users, however, the anonymity afforded by Tor might not be necessary. Several common websites block traffic coming in from Tor and the user experience is much slower than what most people are used to. For this reason, VPNs can serve most use cases – despite not being focused on providing anonymity to their users.
VPN providers rely on a network of dedicated servers. Once you connected to them, your IP address will be hidden from the websites you visit and only the VPN you’re using will know your real identity. Most reputable VPNs claim not to keep records of your online activity, but as mentioned above, they do not provide anonymity.
VPNs also have the benefit of letting you choose the location of the server you’re connecting to, allowing you to bypass content restrictions in certain countries to access blocked websites or different local content on streaming platforms.
So can I use both Tor and a VPN?
Technically, yes! And with great advantage. However, there are different ways to do this. The most obvious one is connecting first to your VPN and then going on the Tor browser. “Tor over VPN,” as it is called, will not let your ISP know you’re connected to the Tor network, adding one more layer of privacy. Likewise, you are also protecting your IP address against any possible malicious threats.
On the other hand, the official Tor documentation advises against this solution unless you know what you’re doing. And it is easy to understand why. While you’re hiding your activity from your ISP, you’re not hiding it from your VPN provider – you are simply choosing to trust the latter and hoping that it doesn’t record your metadata logs. Moreover, VPN connections may sometimes drop (without necessarily alerting you to it), exposing your use of Tor to your VPN provider, even if for brief moments.
Note that if you are in a country where Tor is illegal, your ISP may be required to notify government authorities of customers using Tor. This is when it might be advisable to use Tor over VPN or to run a Tor bridge. This might also save you from falling into unexpected honeypots.
In the end, it isn’t necessarily one against the other, but mostly how can different people take advantage of both solutions depending on their needs at any given moment.
For most users, a VPN will do the job. Not because it is more private but because most people need privacy, rather than anonymity. VPNs are good at protecting users from having their online activity tracked or when using public Wi-Fi, while still benefiting from the speed and content available on the surface web.
But for those searching for as much anonymity as possible, Tor is the solution. And while the network is well known for allowing access to the dark web, its main purpose is to serve as a gateway to escape censorship, which, in any case, should be done carefully.
Whatever solution fits you best, keep in mind that your privacy starts with yourself. So always be careful how much personal data and information about yourself you share online. Otherwise no extra layer of protection will help you.
by André Lameiras, ESET