VPN or Tor: what are the differences between the two options?
With online privacy being present in the minds of people, we are going to look at two tools that can be used to remain anonymous and secure online. The question here is should you choose a VPN or Tor? In some ways the two are very much alike, however in others they are very different. Throughout this article, we are going to highlight the benefits of using a VPN and benefits to using Tor. We are also going to take a look at another option, using a VPN with Tor.
What is a VPN?
So now we will explain exactly what a VPN is, so read on to find out more.
A VPN is also known as a Virtual Private Network. It is one of the ways to stay anonymous online. Users take out a plan by subscribing with a provider. There are many out there to choose from, including ExpressVPN, CyberGhost and NordVPN.
The Virtual Private Network is made up on a network of servers located around the world. Users are able to connect to any of the servers and a virtual tunnel is put between the user and the Internet. Any information that passes through the tunnel is encrypted, making it impossible for hackers to read it. When it reaches the intended destination, it is decrypted.
Along with this, the users IP address is masked and one is taken from the server to which connected. This makes it look as though you are located in the country to which you are connected. This in turn means you can browse anonymously.
The benefits of a Virtual Private Network
We will first look into the many benefits of why you might want to go with a Virtual Private Network to help you decide whether to go with a VPN or Tor.
Access to thousands of servers around the world
One of the many benefits to choosing to go with a Virtual Private Network is the sheer amount of servers providers offer around the globe.
Providers such as ExpressVPN offer users access to many thousands of servers making a suitable choice when you want to stream and overcome geo-restricted content or for accessing content. It is also a good choice for anyone who wants to remain anonymous and appear to be located in any of the supported countries worldwide.
Fast servers, some dedicated to streaming
Virtual Private Network providers offer fast-optimised servers to ensure that streaming goes without a hitch. The servers from ExpressVPN for instance are blazing fast and will not slow down HD streaming or your gaming experience.
Some providers even offer servers dedicated for streaming with one click. NordVPN is one of the best providers. This means users can connect to the best possible server for the service they want to stream from, such as US Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or HBO, among others.
With fast and optimised servers available, with unlimited bandwidth, a Virtual Private Network is a good choice for anyone who wants to stream in HD. It is also a good choice for gamers who want to gain access to games only available in certain regions or who want to remain secure during online gaming.
Security via military grade encryption
When considering a VPN or Tor for security, both work providing protection. However, Virtual Private Networks offer military grade encryption.
Providers usually offer 256-bit encryption putting a virtual tunnel between the user and the World Wide Web. Along with this, your own IP remains hidden as you gain one from the server to which you connected. You remain anonymous and no one can see your personal information.
Some providers offer double encryption and security by allowing users to connect to two different servers.
Apps for a range of devices
Providers of Virtual Private Networks offer support for a wide range of apps for different devices.
This means that once you have signed up and paid for your plan you can download any apps for any devices you use to connect to the internet.
There is no limit on the apps you can download and providers will allow simultaneous connections up to a limit. This means that other family members are able to enjoy all the benefits of the plan at the same time. You can install your VPN on Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android and a range of other devices.
Virtual Private Networks are faster than Tor
Another consideration when choosing a VPN or Tor is the speed. It is no good paying out for high-speed broadband with an ISP only to connect to a slow server.
There is nothing worse than trying to stream HD movies or play games online than stopping and starting or stuttering during buffering. Virtual Private Networks are usually a great deal faster than when using The Onion Router.
This is due to the fact you go through one server and onto the destination. With Tor you go through many nodes and then onto the destination.
What is Tor?
Tor aka The Onion Router may look at first glance to be very similar to a Virtual Private Network, however, it does not provide all the same benefits. What is does provide is anonymity, while a Virtual Private Network offer privacy.
Tor is free of charge. Users access the network through the web browser. This means you cannot use your favourite web browser, as you can when going through a Virtual Private Network.
It gets its name from the fact that your data routes through different layers (an onion has different layers) of security before reaching its final destination.
To do this the browser contacts a server or node randomly. Requests pass on to additional nodes, again randomly, and so on.
The benefit of this for the user is that each of the nodes only knows the IP of the node before it and not the user’s true IP address. This makes it impossible for any server to find out where data came from originally. Encrypted data makes analysing traffic impossible.
The biggest difference when choosing between a VPN or Tor is you have to realise that there is a flaw with the latter and that there is a potential vulnerability in the network, the exit node.
Data is decrypted on reaching the last node. If you are not using an HHTPS connection there is a risk to data being exposed to whoever is running the exit node.
The benefits of Tor
This network does come with some benefits, which you can find below.
Its free to use
Unlike the Virtual Private Networks we have talked about above, it is free to download and use.
This may sound like it is the better out of the two. However, you do have to bear in mind that you do not get access to as many features and security measures as you do with a Virtual Private Network.
Also, bear in mind that there is vulnerability at the exit node, something that may leave your data exposed.
Difficult to close down
The Onion Router is very difficult to close down by governments, organisations and websites. This is due to a network of volunteers running the platform. This is something that might sway you when considering VPN or Tor.
China and Russia often ban servers of Virtual Private Networks. On saying this, Virtual Network Providers do realise this. Providers continually work on the technology offered to ensure servers are available. ExpressVPN is one provider offering a service that still works in all countries.
Almost complete anonymity
The Tor network provides almost complete anonymity due to data going from node to node. Again, you do have to factor in that when it reaches the exit node there is vulnerability if you are not using a secured connection.
You also have to weigh up the fact that with a Virtual Private Network you remain completely anonymous. Your IP is masked and you take on one from another server.
No apps to download
With Tor, there are no apps to download; the only thing required is the web browser. However, there is a downside to this and that is it only works with devices that run the browser. With a VPN you can install it on numerous devices, even on a web browser as you can simply use a VPN extension on Chrome for instance.
Using a VPN with Tor
When considering VPN or Tor some users choose to use both in conjunction with the other.
When using both together users can maximise security. One of the best ways of doing so is to sign up for a Virtual Private Network first. Then connect to a server and then use the Tor web browser.
When using both together this way the VPN provides access to the network of Tor even in places where use of it is blocked. This includes in certain countries, schools and corporate networks.
Another advantage of Tor over VPN is the provider will have no idea what you are doing when using the browser.
When connected this way you get additional security in the event that if there is a bug or issue inside the browser. In the event this happens it is not going to affect you as you are behind the Virtual Private Network.
If you want to use Tor but want to take advantage of all the benefits that a Virtual Private Network offers, use both. Connect to the VPN first then use the specific web browser.
VPN or Tor – which comes out on top?
Now that you have found out the benefits of each have you decided which you are going to use, or perhaps you have decided to combine both?
To summarise, if you want to:
- Undertake such as online banking;
- Connect to public WiFi;
- Do shopping online,
- Use Torrents;
- Geo-restricted sites are accessible.
You might want to choose a VPN!
A Virtual Private Network allows you to connect to a server of your choice from any supported by the provider. Some providers even offer double encryption.
It also allows you to hide your IP address so that even your ISP cannot see what you are doing online and the majority do not log so you have total anonymity.
Also, a Virtual Private Network is faster than The Onion Router as your information does not have to go through numerous nodes. It is also compatible with numerous devices. This means you have protection on devices such as computer, tablet, smartphone, PS4, router and more.
The VPN will protect all internet connections whereas Tor only protects the ones designed for using with the network.
This last one may be free, but it does have limits. Also, are many affordable VPN providers out there offering plans for under $3 per month.
Finally, when considering VPN or Tor you might want to take into account that all Virtual Private Network providers offer support and advice 24/7/365 should you run into any issues or need help.
Alison has joined the team in the early stage because she wanted to share with us the experience she had while using VPNs over the last few years. As she’s travelled a lot, she tested many VPNs and wanted to share this with you. Alison cares about staying anonymous and not leaving any footprints on the internet. Therefore, you won’t have the chance to see her face ;).