We are taking a look at VPN vs Tor to compare the two options, see how they work, and find out what are their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, we are putting them face to face to draw the line and decide who the winner is.
As online privacy is becoming an essential topic when talking about the Internet, more and more people are turning to software tools that promise to make them anonymous when surfing the web.
Most promises are false, but two types of software are legit: VPN services and Tor. In fact, they are currently the top choices for privacy-concerned users. In this article, we are debating which of the two options is better than the other.
Check out the current topics (click to jump):
- Head to head: VPN vs Tor
- VPN vs Tor: Who is the winner
- Using Tor and VPN together
- In conclusion
A wide range of Internet users has turned to virtual private network services in recent years. According to a study conducted by Global Web Index in 2018, most VPN and proxy users originated from Indonesia (44%), India (37%) and Malaysia (32%).
A VPN program hides your IP address and encrypts your traffic. It permits you to surf the web while concealing your browsing activity from your ISP. Plus, visited websites cannot pinpoint your location.
Two things are required to use VPN: a premium subscription to a VPN service, and the software application you need to install on your device to use the service.
How VPN works
Virtual private network tools create secure tunnels for transmitting your data. Each packet of data is encapsulated in an encrypted layer and then sent across the Internet. The VPN protocol decrypts the segments only after they reach their destination to reconstruct the original message in unencrypted form.
Even if a hacker somehow managed to steal your info, they would not be able to decrypt it without a key, which is protected by the VPN protocol. Also, the websites you visit will see the IP address of the VPN server instead of yours.
A VPN service depends on its network of servers, ideally distributed in countries all over the world. When you connect to one of the servers, you assume its identity and guide your data through it. This way, the traffic on the visited sites appear to come from the VPN server instead of your exact IP address.
Why you should use VPN
Thanks to the level of anonymity and encryption facilitated by VPN services, you can unlock many possibilities when going online:
- Anonymize your IP address and encrypt your traffic (end-to-end encryption).
- Hide your browsing activity from your ISP.
- Bypass government censorship and view forbidden content.
- Unlock streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer, including extensive Netflix libraries (from other countries).
- Protect your banking info and email credentials from hackers.
- Keep your data private when using public Wi-Fi, such as hotels, airports, pubs, restaurants, or subway stations.
- Remain anonymous when downloading illegal torrents and using other peer-to-peer services: your IP address will be fake in torrent swarms.
- Prevent marketing companies like Google or Facebook from gathering your browsing details to create targeted ads that follow you on every site you visit.
- Prevent your ISP from throttling your bandwidth.
- Connect to your workplace when you are home or traveling.
- Compatible with multiple operating systems, including Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS.
- Can be installed at the router level to share the VPN connection with all devices connected to the same Wi-Fi network. You can also share the secure connection from Windows or macOS using the VPN client.
- Multiple users can log into the same VPN account at once, depending on how many simultaneous connections are supported by the VPN service.
- Easy to install and set up, thanks to intuitive graphical interfaces and options.
- In case you encounter any problems, you can contact customer support for help.
Why you should not use VPN
It would not be fair to describe VPN applications without also taking into account their disadvantages, so here they are:
- Free VPN apps are dangerous and should be avoided because you risk exposing your data to the VPN provider, which may sell it to marketing agencies.
- A lot of VPN apps contain adware and other forms of malware, especially if they are free.
- Some VPN providers adopt a policy that allows them to collect logs about the activity of their customers, which means you risk compromising your privacy. The matter worsens if the company is based in a country with data retention laws, such as those in the 5, 9 and 14 Eyes alliances.
- If you pick a VPN service that monitors your activity, you might receive warning letters from your ISP for downloading and uploading torrents with copyright material.
- Some VPN providers discourage torrenting.
- If you live in a country that strictly prohibits the use of anonymizers like VPN tools, you might break the law and get fined.
- Subscriptions may be expensive when paying for a quality VPN application.
- The Internet connection speed is generally decreased, especially when a reliable VPN protocol is used (e.g., with AES-256 encryption).
- If you switch to a weaker protocol to increase Internet speed, you might harm your computer’s security.
- Some online services that process payments might find it suspicious that you use a VPN and block your access (unless the VPN service supports obfuscation).
Currently, there are over 3,500,000 people who use Tor to protect their online anonymity. Sadly, many people have a terrible opinion about Tor and think it opens the gates to the dark web where all the lawbreakers live. On the contrary, Tor supports freedom of speech, human rights, and online privacy for any person.
Similar to virtual private network clients, Tor hides your IP address and lets you enjoy uncensored Internet pages. But it operates differently than VPNs, thanks to the model it adopts: an onion. It stands for multiple layers of encryption positioned in concentric circles to symbolize true anonymity.
Tor is made of two parts: the anonymous network and the browser used to access the anonymous network (Tor Browser).
How Tor works
The network encrypts data traffic in multiple layers, also known as onion routing. It consists of numerous computers acting as relays, spread across the globe. Each relay is operated by a volunteer.
To transfer data across Tor, it puts together a circuit with a random path made out of different relays. It starts with the guard node and ends with the exit node. Contents are encrypted three times before they are introduced in the circuit.
The guard relay peels off the first layer of encryption to learn the IP address of the middle node that it must forward the message to, but it does not know the data (two encryption layers left). The middle relay peels off the second layer to find out the IP address of the exit node but does not know the contents, and then forwards the message (one encryption layer left).
Finally, the exit node peels off the last layer to learn the contents of the message but not the IP address it originated from (yours). After decrypting data, it puts it back into the public Internet and makes sure that it reaches its destination.
The guard node knows your IP address while the exit node knows the message contents, but the two relays do not directly communicate with each other. Meanwhile, the middle nodes act as messengers – they carry the message to the next node in the circuit but have no idea what they are carrying. Subsequently, Tor achieves Perfect Forward Secrecy.
Why you should use Tor
Because it provides you with full privacy and anonymity, Tor brings a lot of advantages for Internet users:
- Mask your IP address and encrypt all Internet traffic (Perfect Forward Secrecy).
- Access unavailable sites in countries with censored networks and connect to Tor bridges to prevent the government from blocking Tor.
- Keep a tight lid on the sensitive data you send across the web, including banking info, the username and password of your personal or work email, as well as chats or conversations on WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook Messenger, and others.
- You will not have to worry about exposing your data to hackers when using open hotspots.
- Prevent your ISP and marketing agencies from snooping around your traffic and making personalized ads.
- Protect your identity if you are a journalist, human rights activist, political activist, or whistleblower, especially if you fear your government’s repercussions.
- Completely free to use.
- Compatible with Windows, macOS, Linux, and Android.
- Easy to configure.
Why you should not use Tor
Unfortunately, Tor is not a Jack of all trades and cannot be used for all types of Internet activities:
- It hurts connection speed due to onion routing.
- It is not possible to pick your new IP address. It depends on the circuit randomly selected by Tor.
- Not practical for getting around the Netflix proxy error because you cannot choose a valid IP address. Besides, it would be impossible to enjoy uninterrupted streaming due to Internet slowdown caused by Tor.
- Cannot protect your anonymity when downloading or uploading torrents because your IP address remains visible in the torrent swarm.
- Many exit relays block torrents, whether you are trying to download or upload them.
- It is not compatible with iOS and cannot be installed at the router level.
- Anyone can operate an exit node. Theoretically, the exit node could expose your identity if someone installed traffic-analysis software on that computer. But this is illegal under US law (where the team behind Tor is located).
- If you have any problems using Tor, it is difficult to get in touch with the team behind the Tor Project and request assistance.
- Some browser configuration might be necessary to tighten the lid on safety, like increasing the security level, requesting a new identity, or setting up a new circuit.
- You might reveal your sensitive data when accessing websites that do not support HTTPS.
- Only Tor Browser benefits from Tor’s anonymity and privacy features unless you install Tails, a live operating system that protects all installed software with Internet access.
Head to head: VPN vs Tor
Let us take a look at the most significant aspects of using VPN services and the Tor network to compare the two and find out who is the winner.
Complete privacy and anonymity
Tor is better.
Thanks to onion routing, Tor uses multiple levels of encryption when sending traffic across the network. If it is blocked in your country, you can hide the fact that you are using Tor by connecting to bridges. VPN usage can be hidden only if the VPN client supports obfuscation.
Although it is theoretically possible to decrypt your data from the exit node by analyzing your traffic, casual users who are not breaking the law should not worry about it. The point is that, unlike VPNs, you do not have to trust Tor with your data because it does not acquire it in the first place (as opposed to varying VPN logging policies).
When it comes to VPN vs Tor for privacy and anonymity, VPN is a close second. It uses end-to-end encryption to exchange your info on the Internet. Security increases if the VPN tool has a kill switch, IP and DNS leak protection, and obfuscation. There is no risk of spilling your data to visited sites.
However, you have to put faith in your VPN provider and hope that it is not monitoring your traffic even when it promises not to. Logging policies can be changed at a moment’s notice and the risk of compromising your privacy increases if the company is based in a country that is not fond of anonymizers.
VPN is better.
Unlike Tor, VPN encrypts your data only once, so it requires less processing power. In turn, this means a higher speed. But users who wish to enhance the speed of the VPN service by opting for a weaker protocol like PP2P or L2TP risk damaging their security.
On the other hand, Tor must encrypt traffic three times, which is a lengthy and resource-demanding process.
VPN is better.
At the moment, Tor can only be installed on Windows, macOS, Linux, and Android devices. There is no app available for iOS. On the other hand, VPN services are compatible with Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS. Plus, you can install browser extensions to secure browsing.
However, VPNs are actually compatible with all Internet-enabled devices. It is possible to share your VPN connection with everyone connected to your Wi-Fi network, whether you do this on your computer or install the VPN service at the router level.
Streaming and torrenting
VPN is better.
Many VPN providers focus on maintaining VPN servers that you can use to unlock Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, and other streaming services. You just have to select a server, connect, and enjoy streaming.
Unfortunately, Tor is not a good fit for this task, so it loses points in the VPN vs Tor debate. Because it creates a circuit made of a random path every time it goes online, you cannot control which IP address to associate yourself with. It would also be challenging to watch streaming sites because Tor’s encryption hampers the connection speed.
Tor is better.
The anonymous network is entirely free to use. It is being maintained by thousands of volunteers spread across the world, who agreed to lend their Internet bandwidth so that you can connect and transfer your data.
When discussing pricing in VPN vs Tor, a quality VPN service is pricey, and you cannot make a one-time payment. Instead, you have to pick a subscription plan following a monthly, yearly, or another similar model. To give you an idea, if you already pay for a Netflix subscription, you will probably spend the same amount of money for a VPN service every month, which you might use only to unlock Netflix titles.
Free VPN services must never be used because you cannot trust the providers with your info.
Easy to install and configure
Both VPN and Tor.
As far as a VPN is concerned, you just have to pay for a premium subscription, download the desktop application from the developer’s website, and follow the installation instructions. Then, you launch the app, choose a server, and click a button to connect and enjoy safe browsing, torrenting, and streaming.
To get the best possible speed, connect to a server nearest to your physical location (it is typically the server recommended by the VPN service). But if you want to overcome geoblocks and censorship, you should choose a server from a different country.
As far as Tor is concerned, it is necessary to download and install the Tor Browser, which is a modded version of Firefox. Anyone who has ever used a browser can quickly get acquainted with the Tor Browser. When the app starts, it builds a new circuit automatically so that you can begin anonymous browsing right away. No signup is necessary.
VPN vs Tor: Who is the winner
For general-purpose web browsing, streaming and torrenting, there is no question about VPN vs Tor. We recommend using a premium VPN service. It is maintained by a team of experts who are always looking for new ways to improve their product and add new features.
However, Tor should not be overlooked. It is superior to VPN when it comes to accessing the free web in countries whose Internet is controlled by the government. Tor is ideal for serious business involving journalists, whistleblowers (like Edward Snowden), and political activists.
Using Tor and VPN together
If you are interested in maximizing your privacy and security, you can use Tor and VPN together. There are two ways to do this: Tor over VPN, or VPN over Tor.
In the first scenario, you connect to a VPN server before using Tor. This prevents the guard node from learning your real IP address and the exit node from associating your data with your IP address if breached. It also helps with bypassing sites that typically block Tor access (similar to using bridges).
In the second scenario, you connect to Tor before logging into your VPN service. It prevents the exit node from attempting to decrypt your data after it passes through the circuit. It is because the VPN service encrypts data in a way that cannot be decoded by Tor. The guard node can still see your actual IP address, and the VPN provider thinks that the IP address of the exit router is yours.
All aspects considered VPN services and Tor are indispensable tools that endorse online privacy. No matter which option you go with, you are taking one step forward toward improving your Internet browsing experience. But you can also use a combination of both VPN and Tor to maximize your safety.
Which one is your favorite? VPN? Tor? Something else? Enter a comment below and let us know your thoughts.