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Tor vs VPN | What Are They And How Do They Work?

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What is Tor?

Tor is an anonymity network that provides software designed to allow you to access the internet anonymously. Unlike a VPN, where the VPN provider knows your real IP address and can see your internet traffic at the exit point (the VPN server). With Tor, your signal is routed through a number of nodes, each of which is only aware of the IP addresses ‘in front’ of the node and ‘behind’ it, so that at no point can anyone know the whole path between your computer and the website you are trying to connect with. You can use a VPN with Tor, as our Tor VPN article explains.

The name Tor originated in the acronym The Onion Router, which was developed by US Navy and refers to the way in which data encryption is layered, being re-encrypted multiple times as it passes between randomly selected nodes.

Tor is therefore considered an extremely secure way to access the internet while keeping your true identity hidden.

Tor is endorsed by many civil liberties groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and has been widely praised for allowing dissidents, whistleblowers and human rights workers to access the internet, express their views, talk to journalists, and otherwise become involved in political activity that has been banned by their own repressive regimes.

It does, of course, also allow criminals to act with impunity, and famously allows access to The Silk Road underground market, which only works when connected Tor. Those interested in the ethics of internet anonymity should keep a lookout for our upcoming article on the subject.

Tor vs. VPN

As you can see, the purpose of Tor is very similar to that VPN’s primary purpose – to maintain internet users’ online anonymity and to evade firewalls. Like a VPN, it can also be used to spoof geo-location by the user continually re-connecting until the exit node is in the desired country (quite easy if you want an exit node, less easy for smaller countries with poor infrastructure).

However, not only is the technology used quite dissimilar, but they are also quite different in use. If you want to learn more about this, check out our guide on how a VPN works to find out more.

Tor advantages

  • No-one can trace you to the external IPs you’ve visited
  • Distributed network – almost impossible to shut down or attack meaningfully

Tor disadvantages

  • Very slow, sometimes painfully so – because your data is randomly bounced through a number of nodes, each of which could be anywhere in the world
  • Not suitable for P2P filesharing – while there is no way to stop you from using BitTorrent over Tor (and people do it), it is both very slow and very bad form. It slows down the entire network for every other user, for some of whom access to the internet via Tor may be of critical and possibly importance
  • While it can, at a pinch, be used for location spoofing (see above), Tor is a very fiddly and inefficient way to go about it. In addition to this, the slowness of Tor means that using the service to stream geo-restricted media services is unfeasible.

VPN advantages

  • Fast – generally you will see little slowdown to your raw internet connection speeds when using a VPN service
  • Location spoofing is very easy – most VPN providers offer servers in many locations worldwide. Since these connections are fast, a VPN is ideal for streaming geo-restricted media content in higher resolution
  • Ideal for P2P filesharing – while many providers prohibit it, many are set up with filesharing in mind

VPN disadvantages

  • The VPN provider can see your internet activity – and in many countries is required by law to keep records of it, which may be handed over to the authorities or to copyright lawyers. VPNs are also vulnerable to server raids by the police in an effort to obtain the information they may contain. This is why it is vital to choose a provider that keeps no logs (and is in a position to keep this promise). Of course, even when a VPN provider promises to keep no logs, you are forced to simply trust its word
  • Costs money (although typically under $10 a month, or less if you buy in bulk)

How Tor works

As we noted above, Tor passes data between a number of randomly selected nodes, encrypting it each time. Each node knows where the signal comes from and the node it is going to, but cannot see the whole route (circuit).

These relay circuits are randomly reset every 10 minutes so that your actions cannot be linked to earlier actions.

Each node is run by a volunteer, and therefore the more volunteers there are, the more secure the whole Tor network is.

Volunteering to run an exit node is therefore of great service to the Tor community and strikes a meaningful blow for freedom and against oppressive censorship. It is also not difficult to set up. However, running an exit node means that other Tor users’ activity, including potentially highly illegal activity, will appear to originate from your IP address. This may lead to trouble, but thankfully there are ways to minimize the risks available on the tor project website.

Installing Tor

Installing Tor is very easy these days (it used to be a little more complicated), and it is available for Windows, OSX, Linux/Unix and Android.

You need only download and run Tor package, which will self-extract into a directory of your choice (no additional installation files are added to your computer).

Double-click on Start and the connection dialogue will start.

Once connected, the Tor client starts a customized version of Firefox Portable. Not only is this very lightweight, but it allows you to carry a version of Tor with you on a USB stick (for example), so you can easily access the internet anonymously from any PC.

You can now surf the internet anonymously! The Tor service can be turned on and off using the Onion icon, or customized using the icon’s drop-down menu.

Tor also provides a customized version of the Tails Live CD/USB Linux based distro, so you can boot directly into a secure OS.

Conclusion

The great advantage of Tor is that you do not need to trust anyone – your internet use is completely anonymized. However, it is very slow. As a consequence of this, it is not suitable for many of the most popular activities people want to use VPN for, such as filesharing and streaming geo-restricted media content. If you are looking to stay anonymous whilst torrenting, take a look at our best VPN for torrent sites guide for more information.

As long as a trustworthy no logs VPN provider is used, then VPNs are a very secure and private solution that provides much greater performance and flexibility than Tor can offer.

If, on the other hand, you are a mafia whistleblower or a dissident living under a regime in which it would be very dangerous to be caught performing activity (such as writing political blogs), then Tor is the safest solution.

Just remember that there is no such thing as a 100% guarantee of anonymity, whichever route you take. There are always, at least potentially, loopholes in any security arrangement, and individuals often give their true identities away through patterns and mistakes.

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