In a digital age that relies so heavily on how you spend time online, it feels almost impossible to escape advertisers and other people who want your data. That’s where VPN software comes in: a virtual private network can help protect some user data from being tracked, but not all of it. Tor browsers also provide anonymity while browsing the web. So, which one should you use, and more importantly, which one is better?
The short answer is that both Tor and VPNs are useful in their own right, but depending on how you use the internet, one may seem better than the other. Here are some of the differences between Tor vs VPN.
What is a VPN?
A virtual private networkis software that provides users with a secure connection to whichever network or server they access on the internet. VPNs mask your internet traffic to service providers by acting as a middleman between your computer and a website. When you use a VPN to connect to the internet, your computer sends a request to a VPN’s private server, and then the server forwards the request to the site you wish to access.
Key VPN Uses
VPNs are most often used to access location-restricted content on the web. Streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other similar streaming services have region-locked shows they regularly rotate access to. With a VPN, users can select which country they want to send their query to, thus allowing them to bypass geo-restrictions.
People who spend lots of time working on public networks may also use a VPN to ensure their connection is secure. Unsecured WiFi connections are a great way for hackers to access a computer or phone’s IP address and use that IP address to steal information.
What is Tor?
Originally known as "The Onion Router," Tor is an open-source web browser that encrypts user data via a series of layered nodes. When a Tor user connects to the internet, their connection goes through an entry node and is routed to one of many related relays. After passing through several different relays, it passes through one of several exit nodes to complete a request. The process of connecting to the internet through multiple layered nodes and relays is called “onion routing,” and it’s nothing new—the United States government once used it to protect naval communications!
Key Tor Uses
Most people aren’t connected to the U.S. Navy, and use Tor instead to erase their digital footprints. The many layers of IP encryption Tor provides make it incredibly difficult for companies to track user data and browser history.
The Big Difference Between Tor vs VPN
The main difference between Tor and a VPN is how it encrypts your data: VPNs use a variety of private networks and servers and funnel your connection through a central server. On the other hand, Tor uses a decentralized layer of independent nodes and relays to transfer internet data. It doesn’t pass through a central server.
The Pros and Cons
Each encryption method has its pros and cons, so let’s focus onhow the two differ in these aspects:
VPNs encrypt your data by sending it to a secure, centralized server and through a hand-picked tunnel to complete requests. VPN providers and your ISP can still see your browser history.
Tor uses multiple layers of nodes to encrypt data multiple times, making your data practically untraceable. The goal of Tor is to make all user data look like it’s coming from the same place.
VPNs are tricky since they only encrypt your data once through a central server. Your search data and IP address are secure from data theft, especially when using a public WiFi connection. However, some VPN services keep a log of user data. VPNs based in one of theFive Eyes countries must also hand user data over to the government if asked.
Tor’s public, decentralized layout gives websites and internet service providers access to one piece of data: you’re using the Tor browser. It does not encrypt your connection to WiFi.
A VPN allows users to access region-locked content by changing the server the user connects from. VPNs also allow people to access previously blocked websites and sometimes bypass government restrictions or paywalls.
Tor encrypts user data to give them complete anonymity, but it doesn’t handle CAPTCHA well. Some sites may detect the Tor browser and cut their connection from the user. Users can, however, access compatible sites without any problems.
If you try to access a site that prohibits both Tor and a VPN, you will not be able to access it.
VPNs tend to vary in price, but subscriptions to a reliable VPN usually cost at least $100 per year.
Tor is completely free and open-source.
Anyone with a VPN subscription can use their VPN with whichever browser they prefer.
Tor requires its own browser and does not work on other browser programs.
Both a VPN and Tor slow your connection speeds by encrypting your data remotely.
In some countries, it is illegal to use a VPN.
Tor’s level of encryption makes it difficult to trace search histories back to a user. This means users can access the dark web and use it for illegal purposes.
When to Use a VPN
So, when should you use a VPN? Generally speaking, a VPN is useful for everyday browsing and networking. It’s best to use a VPN if you’re:
Trying to access region-locked content. Just change your encryption server to the country of your choice!
Looking to protect your connection to local WiFi. A VPN works best for encrypting your local data.
Trying to avoid your ISP from throttling your network connection. Since VPNs hide your IP address, you can prevent them from bottlenecking your connection while trying to watch something.
When to Use Tor
Tor, on the other hand, is best if you want complete anonymity while browsing the internet. Consider using Tor when:
You can browse sites anonymously. No one can track you.