An increasing number of people worldwide are giving more thought to their online privacy, security and anonymity. Among the most powerful tools currently available for these endeavors are Tor and VPNs. Although they appear similar, there are some important differences between these technologies.

In this article, we take a close look at how these tools work and how they compare, keeping in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each. Thereafter, we look at cases where the use of each is most suitable.

An overview of VPNs

VPN technology tunnels your online traffic through a remote server. It does this by ensuring that your online privacy is kept intact by masking your IP address, and ensuring that your online traffic has been encrypted. A typical VPN service will feature a vast network of servers distributed in many countries worldwide. When you use a VPN to access the Internet, your online traffic is routed through one of these intermediary servers between your device and the website you’re accessing, be it your online bank account or Netflix.

As a result, neither the website you’re accessing nor any third parties that may intercept your VPN connection are able to determine your IP addresses. Moreover, even when third parties intercept the connection, they cannot see the contents of your online traffic because they are highly encrypted.

When it comes to staying secure and maintaining your privacy online, VPNs offer a number of benefits.

  • Full encryption. Well-established premium VPN services employ the latest encryption technology to ensure maximum online security for their users. The encryption is usually accompanied by a wide variety of security protocols including OpenVPN. This is important especially for users in countries with heavy censorship.
  • Speed. Theoretically, VPN encryption slows down your Internet connection, but it only does so marginally. In many cases, a top-tier VPN service might actually improve the speed of your connection if your ISP was throttling your service for one reason or another.
  • Easy to set up and use. Using and installing a VPN is not nearly as difficult as it once was in the past. Simply sign up for the service, purchase a package, download the VPN app on your device, follow the installation instructions, and connect.
  • Compatibility across devices. Established VPN services have apps or clients for all device platforms: Android, iOS, MacOS, Windows and Linux. Many of these services can also be installed on your home Wi-Fi router.

There are, however, a few ways in which VPNs can be compromised, especially when you use a free or extremely cheap provider.

  • Data leaks. In the event that your VPN connection is lost for one reason or another, your location, data and contents on your online traffic may leak. To ensure that this does not happen, high-quality VPN services include a kill switch that disables your entire connection in case your VPN connection is lost. They also offer features known as DNS and IPv6 leak protection to further ensure that none of your online data leaks.
  • Records of users’ online activity. Most VPN providers keep a log of their users’ activity (usage logs and connection logs). Sometimes the data is used to facilitate service provision. But in some cases, they store this data as a requirement of the government of the country in which the provider operates. Some providers aggregate usage to make it extremely difficult to identify a specific user. The Privacy Policies of providers vary widely so make sure to choose one with a tight policy.

An overview of Tor

Tor is similar to a VPN in that, instead of making a direct connection to the website you visit, the connection is made via a network of intermediaries. The difference here is that whereas VPNs focus on privacy and security, Tor primarily focuses on anonymity.

VPNs prevent third parties from seeing your online activities (the websites and visit and what you do there), but entities with enough power can find ways of defeating this privacy. Moreover, while third parties may not see your online activities, your VPN provider can. The question, in this case, is whether they keep logs on it, in which case you need to trust them.

In contrast, when using Tor, you do not need to worry about your privacy because you are virtually anonymous while online. Needless to say, no tool is completely foolproof. Nonetheless, it would require an inordinate amount of resources to determine your identity when you’re using Tor.

Despite the huge overlap in the way Tor and VPNs work, Tor is not a type of VPN. The distinction between the technologies is as follows:

A VPN ensures your online privacy by hiding your IP address and by encrypting your data. The VPN provider has control over the servers in its network and the software on your device, so you have to trust the provider to safeguard your privacy. Contrastingly, the Tor network offers anonymity through its network of nodes and the software on your device. No organization has control over these sections of service. So you need not trust anyone to enjoy the anonymity offered by Tor.

VPN encryption versus Tor onion routing

Another important difference between Tor and VPNs is in the way your online data is routed. When you use a VPN, the software on your device encrypts your data and sends it to the remote VPN server which decrypts the data and forwards it to the website you want to visit. Information from the website is received by the server which encrypts it and forwards it to your device where it is decrypted by the VPN software. Throughout each session, you use the same VPN server.

The approach taken by Tor Onion Routing is more complex. Before forwarding your data to the intended website, the Onion Routing system passes it through a minimum of three randomly selected Tor servers (nodes). Moreover, your data is encrypted multiple times before leaving your device so, like an onion, there will be several layers of encryption to peel back.

Once your data goes out into the Tor network, each server decrypts (peels) one layer of the encryption. After peeling away the final layer, the last server forwards your original message to the intended website. Because there are so many different layers of protection involved, there is virtually no way of anyone recognizing your location or what you do online. To further bolster your anonymity, your Tor software switches to a new server about every 10 minutes.

With this in mind, the advantages of Tor are evident.

  • Virtual complete anonymity. While there are ways to defeat the Tor network, the difficulty with which that can be achieved makes Tor the most powerful tool for anonymity.
  • Difficult to shut down. The decentralized nature of the Tor network means that it’s not susceptible to being shut down. To a large extent, trying to shut down Tor would be akin to trying to shut down the Internet.

On the downside, however, the way Tor works with its multiple encryptions makes it slow, so it’s not the best option for torrenting or streaming content. Furthermore, it faces the same challenges as other volunteer-run projects such as Wikipedia, which often lacks enough funding to sustainably upgrade and maintain the network.

So which should I choose between Tor and VPN?

Now that you’ve learnt how VPNs and Tor work, you can now determine which one is the most suitable depending on the situation. Here’s a quick guide on when to use each.

When to use a VPN instead of Tor

A VPN is the better option for online activities that involve the transmission of sensitive personal or business data. Examples of such cases include:

  • Shopping online
  • Accessing your bank account online
  • Accessing the Internet while in countries with heavy censorship
  • Accessing the Internet through a public Wi-Fi
  • Torrenting
  • Accessing blocked websites

Whenever you send sensitive information through these and other activities, there’s always a risk that bad actors might intercept it. A VPN protects you against any financial theft, cryptocurrencies and identity any time you engage in these online activities.

Using a VPN is especially important if you’re accessing the Internet through a public Wi-Fi at places such as airports, hotels and coffee shops where hackers often breach people’s online security using equipment that is easily available and affordable. Furthermore, if you travel to a country where censorship is high and torrenting can get you in deep trouble, using a VPN is a must.

There are a number of reasons why VPNs are preferable in these circumstances:

  • They’re faster than Tor because your traffic is routed through one remote server instead of 3 nodes.
  • They protect your entire connection whereas Tor only protects the connections for which it was designed.
  • They’re better for streaming and torrenting.
  • They offer better support in the form of always available customer support teams and FAQ pages.

When to use Tor instead of a VPN

At this point, you’re probably wondering when you ever get to use Tor. In reality, the vast majority of people rarely use Tor, if ever, because VPNs are usual enough for them to stay safe online, and also because they easy to use. But that is not to say that Tor is not useful.

When the stakes are high, Tor is the go-to tool. Perhaps you’re an activist in a repressive country and you’re planning a protest through social media. Or maybe you’re a journalist reporting about some atrocities committed by the leader of a dictatorial regime and publishing the story puts your life at risk.

When your life and liberty are at stake, and when there is a chance that a government organization could be taking advantage of your private data, Tor is a suitable option because only a handful of organization in the world have the resources to determine your identity even if you used the service.

Other advantages that Tor has over VPN include

  • It’s easier to set up and use. Simply download the browser and use it.
  • It’s free, whereas any VPN services worth its salt is a premium service.
  • It offers complete anonymity, making it impossible for third parties to access your data. While this is true of many well-established premium VPNs, the Tor service is unmatched in this respect.

Conclusion

Both Tor and VPNs are powerful tools for anyone serious about ensuring their online privacy and security. In the final verdict, however, a VPN is the superior solution because it’s the most practical option for everyday users. When do you prefer to use Tor or VPN when online and why do you prefer using it in these situations? Share your views in the comments below.