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Tor vs. VPN: A comprehensive comparison for online privacy

Verified by Nick Jones

The quest for online privacy and security has come into the public domain in recent years, with more people becoming aware of some of the potential threats, from the unlikely – but not impossible – event of hacking to bandwidth throttling by your internet service provider (ISP).

This has led to a surge in the popularity of tools designed to protect your online anonymity and security. Among the most prominent of these tools are Tor and VPNs. Welcome to a comprehensive guide that delves deep into the intricacies of both, helping you make an informed decision about which is right for your online needs.

What is Tor?

tor browser download page

Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, is a unique technology designed to protect users’ privacy and anonymity on the internet. But how does it achieve this?

The decentralised nature of Tor

Unlike traditional browsing where your request directly reaches a website, Tor takes a more circuitous route. It uses a network of volunteer-operated servers, ensuring that your data doesn’t take a direct path and making it much harder for any prying eyes to determine who and where you are. This decentralised approach is a cornerstone of Tor’s design, ensuring that no single entity has control over the entire network.

Encryption and onion routing

The name “Onion Router” isn’t just for show. Tor employs a unique method called onion routing. When data is sent over the Tor network, it’s encrypted in layers, much like the layers of an onion. As the data passes through each relay in the Tor network, one layer of encryption is peeled away, but the remaining data stays encrypted. This ensures that no single relay ever knows the complete path of the data, adding a robust layer of security and anonymity to your online activities. This method is a stark contrast to regular browsing, where your data can often be viewed by internet service providers (ISPs), hackers or other third parties.

What can Tor be used for?

The primary allure of Tor is its promise of online anonymity. This makes it a favoured tool for those who wish to browse the internet without leaving a trace. Whether it’s journalists operating in repressive regimes, activists communicating covertly or just everyday users keen on protecting their online footprint, Tor offers a haven. Moreover, Tor is one of the few tools that provide access to the “dark web”, a part of the internet not indexed by traditional search engines and known for its anonymity. 

What is a VPN? Understanding virtual private networks

While Tor offers a unique approach to anonymity, virtual private networks (VPNs) have become the go-to solution for many internet users worldwide. But what exactly is a VPN? And why have they become such pivotal tools in the modern digital landscape?

A VPN is a service that allows users to create a secure and encrypted connection to another network over the internet. Originally developed for businesses to access their networks securely from remote locations, VPNs have now gone mainstream. Their primary purpose is to provide online privacy and anonymity by masking users’ IP addresses and encrypting their internet traffic. This ensures that all data transmitted is shielded from potential eavesdroppers, be it hackers, ISPs or even governments.

At its core, a VPN works by routing your device’s internet connection through a private server rather than your ISP. This means that when data is sent out to the internet, it comes from the VPN server and not your computer, effectively masking your online actions. To achieve this, VPNs use advanced encryption protocols, ensuring that even if someone intercepted the data, they wouldn’t be able to decipher it. This encryption is continuous, safeguarding every bit of data you send or receive, from web browsing to emails.

Benefits of using a VPN

One of the most popular uses of VPNs is to access content that might be restricted in certain regions. Whether it’s a streaming service that’s only available in specific countries or a news website blocked by national firewalls, VPNs can “transport” you to a different location, allowing unrestricted access.

expressvpn app

In an age of rising cyberthreats, a VPN acts as a fortified barrier, protecting your data from potential attacks, especially when using public wifi networks.

With concerns over data selling and surveillance, VPNs ensure your online activities remain private. By masking your IP address, you become virtually invisible, free from targeted ads, trackers and prying eyes.

While the digital age offers unparalleled access to information and connectivity, it also brings with it inherent risks. Tools like VPNs are good tools for those who value their online privacy and security. . Understanding the nuances of each becomes crucial in making informed decisions for your digital footprint.

Similarities between Tor and VPN

Two technologies consistently emerge as frontrunners: Tor and VPNs. Both are designed with the primary objective of safeguarding user privacy in an increasingly interconnected digital landscape. But while their mechanisms differ, what core principles unite these two tools in their pursuit of a more secure internet?

Imagine sending a secret message, but you’re worried it might fall into the wrong hands. Tor and VPNs are like trusted friends who ensure your message remains a secret. Tor wraps your data in layers of encryption, much like an onion. As it travels, each layer is unveiled, but the core message remains intact. VPNs, meanwhile, craft a secure, invisible tunnel for your data. Everything that passes through is scrambled, making it gibberish to any eavesdroppers, whether they’re nosy hackers or over-curious ISPs.

Ever wished to roam a city incognito? That’s what Tor and VPNs do for you online. Tor bounces your data across the globe, making its origin a mystery. VPNs play a different trick; they give you a disguise, swapping your IP address with one from their server. The result? Your online footprints lead everywhere and nowhere at once.

Imagine a world without borders where every piece of information, every show and website is at your fingertips. That’s the promise of Tor and VPNs. While Tor unlocks the enigmatic dark web and dances past internet censors, VPNs play globe-trotter, placing you in a country of your choice and unlocking region-locked content.

Differences between Tor and VPN

While Tor and VPNs both champion the cause of online privacy, they employ distinct methodologies and serve varied purposes.

At the heart of Tor lies its unique onion routing. Data transmitted via Tor is wrapped in multiple layers of encryption. As it traverses the Tor network, each relay peels away a single layer, ensuring no single node ever has the full picture. This decentralised approach stands in contrast to VPNs, which use more straightforward server-based routing. In the VPN model, your data is routed through a specific server, which then communicates with the wider internet on your behalf, masking your original IP address in the process.

Feature Tor VPN
Primary purpose Enhanced anonymity and access to the dark web. Secure browsing, IP masking and bypassing geo-restrictions.
Routing mechanism Uses onion routing, with data passing through multiple relays. Direct server-based routing.
Speed and performance Typically slower due to multiple relays. Generally faster, depending on server location.
Encryption Multi-layered encryption for each relay. End-to-end encryption through a secure tunnel.
IP masking Yes, through multiple relays. Yes, replaces user IP with the VPN server’s IP.
Restricted content Can access the dark web and bypass stringent censorship. Can bypass geo-restrictions by “relocating” users to different countries.
connecting to tor screenshot

The intricate routing mechanism of Tor, while offering robust anonymity, can impact its speed. Each hop between relays introduces latency, which can slow down browsing speeds, especially when accessing bandwidth-intensive content. VPNs, on the other hand, typically offer faster connections. The speed of a VPN largely depends on the server location and its distance from the user. Closer servers usually provide quicker connections, but even distant servers can offer reasonable speeds, making VPNs generally more suitable for activities like streaming.

Tor is ideal for those seeking the highest level of anonymity, such as whistleblowers, journalists in repressive regimes or users accessing the dark web. Its design ensures that user identities remain concealed even from potential adversaries capable of network surveillance. VPNs, while also enhancing privacy, are often chosen for their ability to bypass geo-restrictions, stream content from other regions or secure data when using public wifi networks. 

Tor vs VPN: Which one should you choose?

Navigating the digital realm with privacy and security often boils down to a pivotal choice: Tor or VPN?

The decision hinges on several factors.

First, consider your primary objective. If utmost anonymity, especially in high-risk situations, is paramount, Tor’s intricate onion routing offers a robust shield, making it a preferred choice for whistleblowers or journalists in restrictive regions.

Conversely, if you’re looking to stream geo-restricted content or secure your data on public wifi, a VPN’s faster speeds and server-based routing come to the fore. Real-world scenarios further illuminate the distinction. Imagine a researcher in a country with stringent internet censorship wanting to access blocked academic content.

A VPN, with its ability to “relocate” the user, might be the best bet. However, an activist communicating sensitive information might lean towards Tor for its enhanced anonymity. Ultimately, the choice between Tor and VPN should align with your individual needs. For everyday browsing with an added layer of security, VPNs often suffice.

But for scenarios where the stakes are high and anonymity is non-negotiable, Tor stands out. Evaluate your priorities, understand the tools and make an informed choice for your digital journey.

Frequently asked questions about Tor and VPN

Yes, both Tor and VPNs can bypass internet censorship. Tor accesses the internet through a network of volunteer-operated servers, making it difficult for censors to block all paths. VPNs, on the other hand, reroute your internet traffic through servers in different locations, allowing users to appear as though they’re accessing the internet from another country, thereby bypassing regional restrictions.

Generally, VPNs are faster than Tor. The reason lies in their structures. Tor’s data routing through multiple relays can introduce latency, slowing down connection speeds. VPNs, with their direct server-based routing, usually offer quicker connections, especially when the server is geographically closer to the user.

Absolutely. Both Tor and VPNs are designed to mask your IP address. Tor routes your traffic through several nodes, each only aware of the immediate previous and next hop, ensuring your original IP is concealed. VPNs replace your IP address with that of the VPN server, hiding your original location.

In most countries, using Tor and VPNs is perfectly legal. However, some nations with strict internet censorship laws might restrict or ban their use. Always check local regulations before using these tools, especially when travelling.

Both Tor and VPNs provide enhanced security measures that can deter hackers. They encrypt your data, making it challenging for hackers to decipher. However, no tool offers 100 per cent protection. It’s essential to combine these tools with other security practices, such as regular software updates and strong, unique passwords.

Online privacy and security is more than just a trend – it’s a necessity. As we’ve explored, both Tor and VPNs emerge as leading tools, each with unique strengths.

Tor: Renowned for its onion routing, Tor offers unparalleled anonymity. By bouncing data through multiple relays, it ensures that no single entity can trace your online activities back to you. This makes it an ideal choice for those in high-risk situations, such as activists or journalists in restrictive regions.

VPNs: Offering a more straightforward approach, VPNs create a secure tunnel for your data, encrypting it and masking your IP address. They’re typically faster than Tor and are excellent for bypassing geo-restrictions, making them ideal for streaming or secure browsing on public wifi networks.

When it comes to accessing restricted content, both tools shine. Tor provides a gateway to the dark web and can bypass stringent internet censorship, while VPNs “relocate” users to access region-specific content. The choice between Tor and VPN isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. It boils down to your individual needs. For everyday browsing with enhanced security, a VPN might be your go-to. But when the stakes are high and anonymity is paramount, Tor stands out. 

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Mark Oldham

Writer

Mark is the IT Manager and a governor at Sir John Thursby College, in Burnley, having joined the college as an IT Technician more than 10 years ago. He also writes about IT, education, and cyber security topics, and has written a book, a guide to Windows 11.

For the Independent Advisor, Mark writes about the benefits of VPNs as well as cyber security and helping people stay safe online.

Nick Jones

Editor in Chief

Nick Jones is a highly experienced consumer journalist and editor, who has been writing and producing content for print and online media for over 25 years.

He has worked at some of the UK’s leading publishers including Future Publishing, Highbury Entertainment, and Imagine Publishing, with publications as diverse as Homebuilding & Renovating, TechRadar, and Creative Bloq, writing and editing content for audiences whose interests include history, computing, gaming, films, and science. He’s also produced a number of podcasts in the technology, science, gaming, and true crime genres.

Nick has also enjoyed a highly successful career in content marketing, working in a variety of topics such as health, technology, and finance, with market-leading global companies including Cisco, Pfizer, Santander, and Virgin Media.

Now the Editor-in-Chief of the Independent Advisor, Nick is involved in all aspects of the site’s content, where his expertise in finance, technology, and home products informs every article that’s published on-site. He takes a hands-on approach with our VPN content, penning a number of the articles himself, and verifying that everything we publish in this topic is accurate.

Whatever the area of interest he’s worked in, Nick has always been a consumer champion, helping people find the best deals and give them the information they need to make an informed buying decision.