The internet is an incredible place. To have access to so much information and data within a few seconds is a technological wonder that has helped propel our society forward. However, the internet is also full of people looking to make quick money. Unfortunately, your data is a pretty good way to do just that.
In this discussion on internet security, the following question has always piqued the curiosity of people like me:
Tor vs. VPN: Which is better?
This is exactly why I am here. So without further ado, let’s get started.
Figure 1: VPN vs Tor vs Proxy is a matter of who you are trying to avoid. Source
What is a VPN and how does it work
A VPN which is short for a ‘Virtual Private Network’, is a network of multiple VPN servers located in different geographical locations. In a VPN, the information of the one using the VPN software is essentially hidden from spies. In this way, the internet activity of the user is anonymized and practically secure.
Some of the best VPNs available on the internet are:
Encryption is the name of the game
Think of a VPN as a middle man. It takes money from you, makes a deal with the seller, and gets you access to the house you were after. The difference here is that this middle man never reveals your actual location and doesn’t leave your personal information up for grabs.
The Advantages of using a VPN
VPNs present lots of advantages for the average internet user. Here are a few:
- A VPN encrypts your data with the help of VPN protocols before sending it over the internet
- A VPN hides your IP address and makes tracing the request to the actual user almost impossible
- A good VPN is incredibly snappy. Ideally, you won’t even notice the difference between your connection speed with and without using a VPN
- It is quite easy to set up and use
- A good VPN allows multiple devices to connect to the internet at a time
- VPNs are incredibly good at bypassing geo-blocks
VPNs make the internet secure and are quite easy to set up. This makes them perfect for anyone who doesn’t want to fiddle around with the settings too much.
Disadvantages of using a VPN
Like every piece of software, VPN isn’t perfect for everyone. In fact, there are a few fronts where VPNs might lack.
- Not all VPNs protect your privacy
- VPNs can keep a log of your internet activity
- They can track your online movements
- Once the data leaves the VPN server, a VPN can’t do anything to protect it further, and its safety depends on the individual website
- Free VPNs often have malware
- Good VPNs cost money
Taking a close look at the discussed pros and cons, we can have a pretty fair idea about the capabilities and limitations of using a VPN to enhance our internet security. In short, if your VPN service is subpar, you are better off without using a VPN in the first place.
Tor: what is it, and how is it different from a VPN?
A Tor is similar to a VPN in many aspects. Just like a VPN, it:
- Encrypts your internet traffic
- Hides your actual location
- Helps you bypass geo-blocking
- Provides you with anonymity so you can’t be tracked or monitored
All of these qualities resemble a VPN. But don’t be fooled by thinking that Tor and VPN are the same. There is a reason why there is a heated discussion on Tor network vs. VPN and here’s why.
Tor is a network of servers
The way Tor is fundamentally different from a VPN is its method of working. If I were to describe Tor in one sentence, it would be this:
Tor is a network of distributed servers that are run by people like you and me.
In a Tor network, at any one time, a pathway is established between 3 servers. These servers then serve as the nodes of the network, providing encryption and anonymity. Following things happen when you connect to a Tor network:
- 3 servers are chosen, and a path is established between them. The servers are called the Guard Node, the Middle Node, and the Exit Node
- The software that creates the pathway between these 3 serves also encrypts the message that needs to be sent. The message is encrypted 3 times. The first encryption is meant for the Exit Node to decrypt. The second is intended for the Middle Node to decrypt and the first encryption is decrypted by the Guard Node
- The message is first sent to the Guard Node. The Guard Node decrypts the message, determines it can only read the address of the next server and nothing else and passes it to the Middle Node
- The same happens at the Middle Node, and the message is given to the Exit Node
- The Exit Node then reads the destination address, and your message is delivered
In this process, only the Guard Node knows where the message is coming from, the Middle Node knows nothing about the message and the sender, while the Exit Node only knows about the message. This is how a Tor network guarantees your safety. No Node at any one point knows what the message says and who sent it.
In addition to this, the nodes are recalculated after 10-minute intervals. This way, no one can trace the nodes back to you.
Tor network vs. VPN
Now that you know how a Tor network works, this is how it differs from a VPN:
- The Tor network is not run by a company. Therefore it is completely decentralized
- Unlike a VPN, the servers aren’t predetermined and are recalculated after a set amount of time
- In a Tor network, there is no threat of data logging
- A Tor network encrypts the data 3 times as compared to once by VPNs
- Since the Tor network is community-run, it is entirely free
The advantages of Tor
There are several advantages to using Tor. Here are a few:
- Tor is completely free to use
- Tor provides complete anonymity
- It is practically impossible to shut down Tor since it is operated by volunteers all around the globe
- There are 3 levels of encryption in a Tor network as compared to 1 level in VPN
- Tor is extremely easy to set up and use
- Tor can provide you access to restricted websites
Tor and its Disadvantages
The following are the drawbacks of using a tor.
- Since Tor uses 3 servers and 3 levels of encryption, it is painfully slow
- P2P file transfer and torrenting is not feasible on a Tor network due to its extremely slow nature
- While using Tor is not illegal, it can put you on the watchlist of the Government for possible illicit use since Tor is used by many underground entities
- Tor is run by volunteers. Therefore there is no customer support and maintenance of the network is not guaranteed
VPN service vs. Tor: which one should you choose?
There are similarities and also fundamental differences between a Tor and a VPN. So the answer to the debate about Tor vs. VPN service depends on your specific use.
A VPN is an average person’s best friend
If you are an average user and just want something that works for your online privacy, then you should choose a VPN. Here’s why:
- A VPN service is way faster than Tor and allows easy P2P file transfer
- A quality VPN service will provide plenty of support
- Just like Tor, a good VPN service doesn’t keep VPN logs
- VPN service is compatible with almost all of the major platforms
Highly sensitive work with dire consequences? Choose Tor
If you are not an average person and the type of work you do is highly classified, then use a Tor network.
- If you are a journalist in an oppressive regime, don’t think about the whole VPN vs. proxy vs Tor dilemma… just use a Tor network
- If you need to relay some information which, if leaked, can spell doom for you, then use Tor
In the end, if you are still not satisfied, you can use both at the same time. Configurations like VPN over Tor and Tor over VPN increase the level of security for your data but are also unnecessary for most people.
However, If you are an average guy, just pick one of the following and enjoy:
If you’ve enjoyed this comparison, you might also like this comparison on VPN vs antivirus.