Updated March 2, 2019
Online privacy is something that internet users have to take very seriously following the ever-increasing news reports of hacking and invasion of privacy.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of options for protecting your privacy online, even from your own internet service provider, beyond using a “private tab” on a browser.
The two options we are going to talk about here are the Tor browser and VPNs, and how for added security is it possible to combine a VPN and Tor.
What Is Tor?
Tor was originally developed with the help of the U.S. Navy specifically for protecting government communications online. The name initials stand for "The Onion Router" and today the developers focus on researching and developing privacy tools to be used online.
Once you have downloaded the Tor web browser and connected to the Tor network, your online identity is disguised. Traffic from your computer leaves with layers of encryption that are peeled off at the Tor network nodes before it reaches the open internet.
This means that any traffic leaving your computer cannot be traced directly back to you. Instead of seeing your IP address, anyone snooping sees IP address of the Tor exit node.
What Is A VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) is a tool that internet users run on their computer, smartphone or other supported device to protect their internet traffic.
In much the same way as traffic goes through the Tor network, the same applies to a VPN. The difference is that the traffic goes usually through a single sever owned by the VPN provider. The server network can be distributed worldwide, with users being able to choose which part of the world they want to use a server in. For all intents and purposes, anyone snooping thinks that the user is situated in the country the server is located.
A VPN can be used for privacy but it can also be used effectively to watch content that is blocked in the user’s country.
So, both Tor and VPNs are effective means of protecting your privacy online. However, what if you were to combine them and use them both at the same time. Would your privacy be even safer?
How To Use The Two Together
There is nothing to prevent you from using both Tor and VPN together. Using both would essentially provide you with a double layer of security, but as both Tor and VPNs slow down internet speeds, you can expect to feel the impact more.
There are two ways you could combine Tor and a VPN that depend on which you connect to first.
Tor to VPN or "VPN over Tor"
Tor to VPN offers advantages for those sending sensitive information. This is because when you send traffic from your computer through Tor and onto the VPN, your activities are hidden from malicious exit nodes of Tor.
When traffic leaves the network of Tor it is decrypted, this means that exit nodes that might be spying on the traffic will see everything. If that information is encrypted by the VPN, snoops won't see your activities.
Another advantage of using the method is that the risks of the VPN provider logging your activity are reduced. Logs collected by the VPN provider, and some do log you, will have the IP address from Tor attached to it instead of your real IP address.
The major downside to this is that you might have to manually configure your VPN to work with Tor in this way. Also your ISP will be able to see that you are using Tor, but not your activities.
VPN to Tor or "Tor over VPN"
The second option is to connect to your VPN then Tor. By using Tor through the VPN, your VPN provider will not see what you're doing in the Tor network.
This option is much easier to set up, it only requires that turn on your VPN then open Tor Browser. Some VPN providers, like NordVPN, have a built-in Tor service, so you can connect directly to the onion network without Tor Browser.
The disadvantage is that with this method your traffic is going through your VPN first before the Tor network, so malicious exit nodes are able to see your unencrypted web traffic.
There are privacy and security advantages that come from combining Tor with a VPN if you're willing to take a hit to your internet speeds. However, it's important to keep in mind that many of the benefits can also be had with a VPN alone.