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Posted by in Change IP Address, Privacy, VPN

TOR vs VPN

When thinking about browsing online anonymously, getting around geo-restricted websites and content, and bypassing firewalls at work and school you have a few options. The most popular options are proxies, VPNs, and TOR. We've already discussed the difference between VPNs and proxies, this time we'll look at the advantages and disadvantages of TOR versus VPNs.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private access network, is a private tunnel for your encrypted internet traffic to pass through. The encrypted data flows through the tunnel provided by the VPN provider. This gives your data privacy, and security and is useful in a wide variety of situations, even for casual internet users.

What is TOR?

TOR is an acronym for The Onion Router. It was originally developed by the US Navy and then by the infamous DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the 1990s. The American government was interested in this technology as a means to protect the security of US communications worldwide. It wasn't until 2004 that TOR's technology went public, for free. As opposed to VPNs which provide privacy and security, TOR's strength resides in anonymity as well as security.

Today, TOR is most widely known as a way to access the dark web. Simply put, the dark web describes websites that can't be found through search engines like Google. Of course, you have no doubt heard about the illegal activity that occurs on the dark web; even the name sounds sinister. And while TV shows like NCIS, CSI, and the media in general may overstate these qualities, because of TOR's anonymity illegal activities and deals can be found on the dark web.

However, finding your way onto the ‘wicked' dark web isn't the only use of TOR. It can also be used to surf the web anonymously, acces geo-restricted content, and bypass firewalls.

How does TOR work?

Though some of the end results are the same, TOR and VPNs work differently.

Photo courtesy of The Tor Project

In fact, ‘The Onion Router' is not just a cool name: it's a hint as to how TOR works. In contrast with VPNs which encrypt data only once, with TOR your information is encrypted in several layers. This information is then relayed through several computers (at least three) before it reaches the website you are attempting to communicate with. At each computer relay, or node, a layer of security is peeled back, like an onion. Each node only knows which node gave it the data and where it is sending the data to until the last relay, also known as the exit node. This last node unwraps the last layer and can see the data (like login details) being transmitted. These layers means that none of the nodes know who you are, and only the exit node knows the destination.

Photo courtesy of The Tor Project

This system is robust but like anything else, has its downfalls.

For starters, it is possible the trick the system. If, say the FBI or some other entity have registered enough nodes they can monitor some traffic that pass through the relays they control. Another loophole are when there are malicious exit nodes. Exit nodes up to no good can sometimes deposit malware into downloads, redirect users to fake websites, and even steal login credentials- usually with the goal of stealing bitcoins.

Photo courtesy of The Tor Project

However, it's important to note that malicious exit nodes are only a problem when accessing sites not on the TOR network, known as onion sites, and websites not protected by HTTPS. Sites on the TOR network are easily identified by a .onion address as opposed to a .com, .net, .org etcetera address. Some of these problems can be addressed with some simple tips.

Another drawback of using TOR is the speed. Encrypting, decrypting, and routing your data all over the world takes time, don't expect blinding fast speed. Additionally, surfing with TOR takes up quite a bit of bandwidth, or space, on the internet with which you share with everyone else on your network. When your ISP spots your ungodly use of bandwidth they might elect to throttle your connection and slow you down- even when you're not on TOR.

Can I use a VPN with TOR?

Yes, you can. The real question is if you want to. If done properly with the right VPN service it can add to your privacy and security. But for the general user combining a VPN with TOR does not provide any advantages and may actually work against you, not to mention losing quite a bit of speed.

Using TOR over VPN

In this case you will connect to your VPN of choice first, then connect to TOR. The only advantages to this setup is that it will prevent your ISP from knowing that you are using TOR and the TOR entry node won't know your true IP address; it will see the IP address provided by your VPN instead. However, this also provides a vulnerability, your VPN knows your IP address and if they keep logs they will give up your info if they are ordered to by a court. In addition, it's possible that your VPN provider could intercept and monitor your traffic before reaching the entry node. This method will not protect you from malicious exit nodes, and may even block the exit nodes altogether.

If you want to go this route there are some VPN providers that offer TOR through their VPN service, which allows you to use both TOR and VPN on the browser of your choice.

Conclusion

There are other setups which combine TOR and VPNs but these take considerable technical knowledge and are only supported by a couple of VPN providers. These types of connections need some reasearch and know how that's beyond the scope of this article. There are generally two schools of thought for and against using a VPN with TOR. Ultimately though, the decision comes down to your needs and technical capabilities.

Feature image courtesy of The Tor Project

My current VPN Recommendation is VyprVPN! It's inexpensive, secure, and trustworthy, and they have one of the best mobile apps in the industry.

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