If you want to keep your browsing anonymous on the internet, there are a number of ways to do it. The two main contenders are VPNs and the Tor Browser. Though the goal of each of these is the same, their methods are very different. Let’s compare them and see what makes each of them tick.
How a VPN Works
Since they’re much more popular than Tor, we’ll start by briefly going over how VPNs (virtual private networks) work.
When you connect to the internet under normal circumstances, you do so by first connecting to a server run by your internet service provider (ISP), which in turn connects you to the site you want to visit. In this scenario, the site can see your IP address and the ISP can see what site you’re connected to.
A virtual private network creates a buffer of sorts. When you use a VPN, you go from your ISP’s server to one run by the VPN and only then to the site you want. This does two things: the first is that you assume the IP address of the VPN server, hiding your location from the site, while also setting up an encrypted connection between the ISP’s server and the VPN’s, meaning your ISP can’t see what you’re doing anymore.
To run their services, VPNs need money; servers don’t grow on trees, after all. As a result, most VPNs are paid services, with prices ranging from a few bucks per month to $100 per year. There are also free VPNs, but they generally only offer limited services, or at least the few that aren’t outright scams do.
How Tor Works
Another great way to anonymize your internet activity is by using Tor Browser, a specialized browser that can also spoof your location. It’s also the only way in which you can access .onion sites, better known as the dark web, as other browsers will be rejected.
There are a number of differences between Tor and VPNs, though, starting with the fact that Tor doesn’t use servers. Instead, it relies on so-called nodes to reroute traffic. A node could possibly be a server, but more likely is the smartphone, laptop or gaming rig owned by a volunteer for the Tor network.
When you use Tor, you’re not using a server run by a company that you pay money to, like with a VPN. Instead, it’s a network run by people that believe privacy and anonymity are a right—as well as some people who do things online that can’t stand the light of day.
However, that’s not even the biggest difference between the two: Tor nodes are practically unprotected, they don’t use encryption beyond the standard HTTPS. This means that if you use Tor, the wonder of the node as well as anybody that pings back at it can see who you are and what sites you’re visiting—though not what you’re doing on that site, HTTPS protects that.
To browse anonymously with Tor, you need to use more than one node—three is considered safe. What happens is that you first connect to what’s called an entry node, where you “enter” the Tor network, then to an intermediate node, and only then to the node that you really want, called the exit node.
Any site you connect to can only see the exit node, pinging back to it only reveals the details of the intermediate node. Pinging that only reveals the details of the entry node. This daisy chain of nodes compartmentalizes your connection, making it impossible, on paper, to see the whole picture and thus keeping you anonymous.
Comparing Tor and VPNs
However, there’s a massive downside to using Tor: it’s slow. Any time you reroute your connection, whether you use Tor or a VPN, you’re going to slow down your internet speeds. The more you jump, the worse this slowdown is. Since Tor needs three jumps to work, you can imagine how bad it can get.
If you take three points very far from each other, you can expect speeds to slow to a crawl, sometimes 10% or so of your base speed. The only way to fix this is to take points close to you, which should help, but if you need the IP address of somewhere far away, the problem rears its head again.
On top of that, there’s some discussion on how safe Tor browsing really is. While what you’re doing online can’t be seen, the connection itself isn’t encrypted in any way. As a result, on paper at least, you could be tracked down when using it. How big the chances of this happening really are is unknown, but it’s definitely a possibility.
Tor and VPNs Working Together?
The upshot is that VPNs are more or less a Swiss army knife that can do a bit of everything, while Tor is more like a purpose-built tool that does only one or two things, but is the only one that can. VPNs will keep your browsing private, help you unblock Netflix, and can be used for torrenting, but cost money.
Tor can on a technical level do all the above, but is hampered by its poor speeds and questions surrounding its security. However, its power is that it can access the dark web, which no other browser can do. On top of that, it’s free to use, as well, making it an interesting option for people that want to spoof their IP without paying money.
However, there is a way to get the best of both worlds, by using Tor over VPN (Proton VPN makes it easy with their paid plans). You can encrypt your traffic using the VPN and then use only one node to access the dark web. Though it still comes with some issues, it seems for now to be the best way to get security and still access .onion sites.
If, however, the dark web holds no appeal to you, you probably want to use a VPN instead. To help you get started, we’ve made a selection of the best VPN services out there. If money is an issue for you, you could even just use a free one, we go over some tips about picking one in our comparison of free and paid VPNs.
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