Tor vs VPN: Which should you use and how do they differ?

While a VPN and the Tor network have a lot in common, their purposes are very different.

Both make use of proxies, which operate as relays for internet connections. This conceals the user’s true IP address and location from other parties, making tracking users more difficult.

Additionally, they both use encryption, which scrambles the contents of data transported to and from the internet, ensuring that data intercepted by other parties cannot be deciphered.

Thus, what is the difference between Tor and a VPN, and which should you use?

On the other hand, VPNs place a premium on privacy, while Tor places a premium on anonymity. Whereas these two notions overlap somewhat, consider the following: Anonymity conceals who you are, while privacy conceals what you do.

A VPN encrypts your connection and routes it via an intermediate server located in a different location specified by the user. The VPN provider manages this server.

Tor encrypts your internet connection and route it via a network of volunteer-run computers.

But let’s get down to business. What applications are Tor and VPNs most well-suited for?

When is it OK to utilize Tor?

Tor is superior to a VPN in the following ways:

  • Accessing the web anonymously — It is almost impossible to track down the originating user of a Tor connection. You may view a website anonymously without leaving any identifying information on your device or on the website’s server.
  • Accessing the dark web — Tor may be used to access the dark web (a.k.a. the darknet). Most of the dark web is comprised of websites that are only accessible through a Tor connection and are not listed on Google. While it is often connected with illegal behavior, such as black markets, it is also utilized for a variety of lawful purposes.
  • Untraceable communication — Journalists and their sources, whistleblowers, activists, dissidents, and victims of crime seeking anonymity may use Tor to communicate securely without being monitored or leaving a trail of evidence.

By default, Tor does not allow you to specify the IP address from which you browse the web. Additionally, the majority of websites are capable of identifying traffic originating from a Tor exit relay and blocking it appropriately.

While Tor is very secure, all connections must go via Tor entry and exit relays. These relays are public, which means that your ISP and other third parties will be aware that you are using Tor. Even if they are unable to determine what you are doing or who you are online, the very fact that you are using Tor may arouse suspicions, since many people equate it with illegal activities. It is possible to circumvent this restriction using a Tor feature called bridges, but that is a topic for another post.

When is it OK to use a VPN?

A VPN is preferable to Tor for the following reasons:

  • Unblocking region-restricted content — For example, many streaming services restrict access to their content to users from certain regions. A VPN enables a user to “falsify” their location by changing it to one of the countries in which the VPN provider maintains servers, thus circumventing region limitations.
  • Torrenting — VPNs are often considerably quicker than Tor, allowing for much greater download capacity.
  • Securing public WiFi — If you’re traveling and need access to public WiFi, a VPN is a more handy option. VPN encryption prevents hackers from eavesdropping and initiating man-in-the-middle attacks, but does not impair your surfing experience in any other way.
  • Bypassing censorship — If you live in a nation such as China where most of the internet is prohibited by the government, a VPN enables you to view censored information as if you were in another country.
  • Prevent ISP throttling — If your internet service provider restricts particular forms of internet traffic, such as torrents or video streams, a VPN may mask this activity so that it is not targeted.
  • Accessing banned content at work or school — If you work or study in an environment that limits online access. A VPN may help you circumvent these restrictions.

While a VPN masks your IP address, the VPN operator retains access to connection data and traffic traveling via its servers. While the majority of VPN services claim they do not track this information, utilizing them for anonymity involves trusting the VPN provider, while Tor operates on a trustless basis (more on that later).

A VPN will not allow you access to the dark web (although its use is still popular). To access .onion websites, a Tor connection is necessary.

What is the difference between Tor and a virtual private network (VPN)?

By default, an unencrypted internet connection is used, and data is sent straight from your device to the target website, app, or service.

Both Tor and a VPN encrypt data on the way out of your device and then route it via proxy servers to conceal your IP address and location. Incoming data follows the same procedure as outgoing data.

Centralization vs. decentralization

The most significant distinction is that a VPN is a centralized service. This implies that a central authority is in charge of and oversees connections. That would be the VPN provider in this scenario, which is often a private corporation. A VPN provider may own and run thousands of servers located across the globe to which its subscribers may connect. While VPNs provide enough privacy and fast connectivity, they do need users to have some level of faith in the VPN provider.

Tor is a decentralized network. It is not owned or managed by anybody. Thousands of volunteers worldwide maintain proxy servers, termed “nodes” or “relays.” When you connect to Tor, each time you visit a new website, your connection is routed via a random series of these servers. Although an exit relay—the last relay in the sequence—might be able to read unencrypted communication traveling through it, it cannot know the source of that data.

VPN with single-hop vs. Tor onion routing

The majority of VPNs make use of a single proxy server. On your device, incoming data is encrypted, delivered to the VPN server, decrypted, and then sent to the target website, app, or service. Few VPN providers allow multi-hop configurations, but they are the exception rather than the norm.

Tor routes your data randomly via no less than three relays. Once each relay receives your encrypted data, include the IP address of the next relay in the sequence. In each relay, a layer of encryption is lifted, exposing the next relay in the chain while concealing it from the prior relays in the chain. No one relay has visibility into the content, source, or destination of internet data, making tracing exceedingly difficult. This is called “onion routing,” and it gets its name from the fact that the levels of encryption are removed, much like the layers of an onion. Tor is short for “The Onion Router.”

VPN applications vs. the Tor browser

Tor may be configured in a variety of ways on devices and apps, although the majority of users access the Tor network using the Tor browser. This is a Firefox-based web browser with an emphasis on security and anonymity. All web traffic is routed over the Tor network through the Tor browser. It will not save your browsing history, will not execute scripts, and will not retain cookies once you close it.

Tor may also be utilized in a variety of different ways, from whole operating systems such as TAILS to communication applications such as SecureDrop and Ricochet.

Connecting devices and applications to VPNs is accomplished using a VPN app or via built-in clients on PCs, cellphones, and wifi routers. The majority of commercial VPN providers develop their own applications, which are preloaded with the VPN provider’s whole server network. With features like leak prevention, kill switches, obfuscation, split tunneling, and IP address modulation, good VPN programs may significantly increase the privacy and security of connections.

Although most major operating systems, including Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android, provide rudimentary VPN clients, each VPN server must be set up separately to utilize them.

Can I use Tor and a VPN concurrently?

Yes! It will undoubtedly have a detrimental effect on your internet speed, but it is doable.

The simplest method is to connect to a VPN and then start the Tor browser. Outgoing traffic will be routed via VPN first, and then through the Tor network.

This configuration makes tracking your account more difficult for third parties. If your internet service provider is against Tor connections, the VPN will conceal your use of Tor.

Which should I use, Tor or a VPN?

Both Tor and VPNs offer certain advantages but choosing one to use depends on your objectives.

A decent rule of thumb is to always utilize a VPN and to use Tor only when necessary. A VPN enhances your privacy while being unobtrusive to normal online surfing and internet use. Tor should be launched if you need complete anonymity or want to browse the dark web.

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