It’s true that various cyber-security and privacy-related communities can seem a little closed-off to the general public. Tech jargon abounds and it can be hard to get a straight answer on the pros and cons of a given technology. On top of this, the whole field moves so quickly it can make one’s head spin. Tor is possibly one of the most confusing topics of the lot. Many people talk about it constantly, but hardly stop to explain the technology. The same applies to VPNs, which only adds confusion to this whole situation. So, we should take a look at Tor vs VPN – a clear side-by-side comparison of the biggest privacy-related technologies.
In this article, we want to clarify Tor and compare it to the much more popular VPN technology that’s starting to go mainstream. In general, VPNs are excellent privacy tools. However, VPN security is not perfect and not always the best choice. So it’s good to know where the weak spots in the armor are. Let’s dig down and match these two privacy technologies up head-to-head.
Tor VS VPN: Side-By-Side Comparison
It can be a little confusing to separate Tor from VPNs. On the surface, both of these technologies can look pretty much the same. Both provide you with a software interface that you need to activate to work. They both make it hard for anyone from the outside to figure out who you are or what you do on the Web.
To make it even more confusing, many VPN providers will offer Tor as part of their VPN product. This is great – but can obscure the differences between the two even more! To get to the bottom of this, we’ll be looking at what each of these techniques represents, how it operates and which use cases are the best for each. You’ll soon see that they are in fact very distinct systems.
What is Tor?
Tor is, at its core, a software solution. It’s a free program that you can download on your computer or sometimes plug into another piece of software. Unlike VPNs, there is no central control of Tor. The computers that run Tor form a worldwide volunteer network. In the case of a VPN network, the VPN provider owns or at least controls the entire thing.
When people talk about ‘Tor’, in general, it encompasses both the software and the actual worldwide anonymity network formed by computers running the program.
How Does Tor Work?
The name Tor is actually short for ‘The Onion Router’ which refers to the special type of network routing technology that Tor is built on.
Onion routing is a networking method developed in the 90s by naval researchers. ‘Routing’ refers to the way that data packets are sent from your Internet devices to their final destination. Since the Internet does not have a central hub, packets can take just about any path. Routing is just the method of making sure the right packets make it to the right place. Normally, those packets can be inspected and read by the computers on all the stops on the way to the destination server.
Onion routing wraps the original data in layers of encryption. Each stop on the way to the end point strips away a single layer of encryption until the last ‘onion layer’ is removed by the final server and then passed on.
Tor goes far beyond this actually, since it randomly selects which stops on the Tor network will carry a given piece of data. Each computer on the network only knows which node the packet comes from and which node it’s going to.
Benefits of Using Tor
The way that Tor has been configured means that it is basically impossible to ever trace the data back to the original sender. The Tor network also has no owner. It’s like the Internet itself in that you can’t really attack it, shut it down or control it. So, you can always trust Tor to have your back as long as people keep volunteering.
Downsides of Using Tor
It goes without saying that randomizing data packet paths and layering encryption onto that data multiple times is not a good recipe for fast performance. Tor is slow. It doesn’t matter if you have a fancy Internet connection or a dial-up mode. Either way, you aren’t going to be blown away by its performance.
What Are Possible Uses for Tor?
Tor is the ultimate privacy and anonymity solution, but it’s not a network built, funded and maintained to perform well or handle large amounts of data. So, that makes it pretty much a terrible choice for applications such as media streaming and peer-to-peer file sharing.
You should only use Tor for truly sensitive Internet communication that absolutely depends on this level of security. Think of Tor as a sort of 911 Internet emergency line. People depend on it for serious work and we shouldn’t be trying it up with irrelevant stuff. So, if we take a look at Tor Vs VPN – it’s clear that Tor is a more ‘serious’ option between the two.
What Are VPNs?
VPNs or Virtual Private Networks are a set of network technologies that create a ‘tunnel’ through the public Web so that your data can travel between your computer and the destination server.
When you use a VPN, only your computer and the machine at the other end of the tunnel know what you’re doing, which means all the computers your packets pass through on the way there can’t know who you are, where you are, or who you’re talking to.
How do VPNs Work?
There are three aspects to VPN technology that you should know about: authentication, encapsulation and encryption.
- Authentication is the method the VPN uses to make sure that you are really you and that the VPN server is also who it says it is. Under the hood, there may be security certificated and cryptographic security methods. From the user’s point of view, it’s basically a username and a password, although two-factor authentication is a good idea for really sensitive VPN usages.
- Encapsulation is a method of taking a data packet (such as a video stream packet) and wrapping it inside another packet (the VPN packet). This means that anyone looking at the ‘envelope’ of the packet, won’t know what’s really inside unless they open it up using a method known as ‘packet inspection’.
- Which is where the third component, encryption, comes in. Just like Tor, the VPN system uses encryption technology to scramble the actual content of the packet. The only one who can decode the contents when it arrives is the VPN server itself.
One key difference between VPNs and Tor’s approach to encryption is that VPNs generally only encrypt the data once. There are some VPNs that allow or use double-encryption, but that’s usually as far as it goes.
Benefits of Using VPNs
Although using a VPN is generally a little slower than just using a naked Internet connection, it is vastly faster than using Tor. This is because VPN networks are purpose-built to do their job. They are optimized to minimize the impact they have on your connection. This makes it practical to do things like peer-to-peer file sharing and streaming. It’s also easy to set up geo-unblocking with a VPN.
Not all VPNs perform the same, as we saw in our VPN speed comparison, but they are almost all faster than Tor can hope to be. Since VPNs are run by companies or other distinct entities it also means you have someone to turn to if you need support and don’t have to rely on an army of volunteers.
Downsides of Using VPNs
When taking a look at Tor Vs VPN, there are numerous differences here that will help you to understand what VPNs are capable of doing.
First of all, the tunnel itself is pretty much visible to anyone. So although your data inside the tunnel is hidden, people will know that you have a point-to-point connection. The whole point of Tor is to make it impossible to tell which two points are talking to each other. The other major downside of a VPN is that there’s at least one entity who knows everything you do on the Net: your VPN provider.
Using a VPN for privacy and security requires that you place a lot of trust in your VPN provider. You have to trust that they aren’t going to sell your info to third-parties, won’t keep records and won’t fold when the government comes for your data. Be sure to have a look at TechNadu’s VPN Guide for a list of things you need to be aware of before signing up with a VPN provider.
The other obvious downside is that a VPN generally costs money if you want a good one. We have seen good free VPN solutions before, but the spectre of trust is even more important when you aren’t paying for your VPN service.
What Are Possible Uses for VPNs?
VPNs provide very strong privacy protection for almost all use cases on the Internet. If you want to access blocked content with good data performance, a VPN is the way to go. It’s also a good solution for things that don’t require mission-critical privacy and anonymity.
Depending on who you use, VPNs are also pretty easy to set up and understand. They generally have good support structures in place and support a wide variety of devices and platforms. Modern VPNs are designed to give you overall protection. Although this protection isn’t as strong as Tor’s solution, it strikes an excellent balance between performance and privacy concerns.
The best way to approach this is to decide how catastrophic what you’re doing would be for you if anyone found out. If the consequences of your Web activity could put you in serious trouble, then you are better off using Tor. If it’s something more mundane, VPNs will be just fine.
Tor Vs VPN: The Final Verdict
As you’ve seen, both Tor and commercial VPNs are excellent tools that are very good at what they do, but one can’t be swapped for the other.
Tor is the ultimate privacy tool for those of us who must protect our identities and activities. It’s a wonderful tool in the fight for freedom on the Internet. Also, Tor is something we use when we expect that a very determined adversary will put the time and resources into finding the source of information. As of today, it doesn’t matter how much time, money or power someone has, there is not yet a way to defeat Tor’s technology when it comes to being untraceable.
On the other hand, VPNs are not impossible to compromise. Just very, very difficult. This means that unless you are literally trying to stay below the radar of major government intelligence services, it’s your tool of choice. That does not mean you should trust any VPN blindly! Make sure you understand VPN legality and safety before you start making use of one. It could save you from a lot of trouble.
Dear visitors and readers, that would all when it comes to Tor Vs VPN. We hope that now you know a bit about how to differentiate these two, as well as how to keep yourself protected online. If you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to let us know.