VPN or TOR? Which one is Better?

written by

Jack Foster

last updated

September 30, 2020

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Now that we’re well into 2020, more people are considering their online privacy and security. Of those who have used a VPN in the last month, 42% of them are using a VPN on their smartphone, and 35% on a desktop every day.

From what’s available on the market to protect people, TOR and VPNs appear to be the most popular and powerful tools. They’re both quite similar to each other, but also display some significant differences. After all, why would there be two tools on the market doing exactly the same job.

My mission is to distinguish the similarities and differences between TOR and VPN. I’ll be providing you with an overview of each, including pros, cons, and comparisons. I will also outline when and why you may want to use TOR or a VPN, as this could help you decide what’s best for you.

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a piece of technology designed to protect your security and privacy when using the internet. You can download a VPN on your desktop PC, smartphone, other smart technologies, and even your internet router. This will mask your IP address when engaging in internet activities.

VPNs use different levels and types of encryption to hide who you are, where you’re browsing from, and what you’re using the internet for. People use VPNs for many different reasons including: protect privacy, hide traffic logs, access torrenting (P2P), Netflix, etc.

How does a VPN work?

I’ll try to make this as simple and user-friendly as possible. When you launch your VPN software, it will start encrypting your data. If you have a VPN that launches when you start your PC or smartphone, it can prevent your ISP or WiFi provider from ever seeing your data.

How a VPN works
Image credit: Express VPN

Your data goes through the VPN to the VPN server and then to your internet session. Whether you’re playing an online game, accessing your online banking, or filling out a form, the ‘destination’ just sees you as coming from a VPN. It won’t know where you’ve come from or be able to locate your computer, smartphone, etc.

Advantages of using a VPN

Aside from protecting your privacy and enhancing your online security, there are various advantages to using a VPN. When you compare using a VPN against not using a VPN, you’ll see why the pros outweigh the cons.

  • Encryption: When you use a VPN, all your internet activity is encrypted. When the data is passed between a VPN server and your device, no one can see your connection or access your data. If you access sensitive data or live in a country where internet access is restricted, you may want to consider a VPN.
  • Easy to use: You may think that installing a VPN is complicated, but it’s far from it. In most cases, all you need to do is download the client (software) and click connect. You’ll be able to access a wide range of servers across multiple countries with the click of a button.
  • Compatibility: Most VPNs will work on a multitude of devices. This includes Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome, routers and more. Many VPN services will allow you to connect to multiple devices at once, so you won’t have to pay out for a VPN on each device.
  • Access blocked content: If your ISP or the country you live in blocks certain content, a VPN could unlock this content. For example, if you’re trying to access Netflix, a VPN can hide your current location and make it seem like your connection is coming from a different country. Access geo-restricted content is one of the most popular reasons people use a VPN.

Disadvantages of using a VPN

Although using a VPN has many advantages, we do need to outline potential disadvantages. Like most things, VPNs aren’t completely infallible. Certain situations may lead to your privacy being compromised. It’s good to be aware of these areas to protect yourself.

  • Software crashes: In order for your VPN to work, the VPN software must work. I realise that sounds a little obvious, but if your VPN crashes or something goes wrong with your device, your connection could be interrupted. If this happens, you will no longer be protected by your VPN. If this does occur, disconnect from the internet until you resolve the issue.
  • Logging policies: Most VPN providers employ a strict no-logging policy. However, some have been known to leak data logs, and some policies are darn right ambiguous. It’s important to check your VPN providers logging policy before you sign up to their services. There’s no harm in looking at reviews of VPNs beforehand so that you’re clued up.

What is TOR?

The Tor Project was launched in 2002. It’s an open source piece of software designed to provide completely anonymous communication. The original project name, The Onion Router, is now commonly known as TOR (or Tor).

Similar to a VPN, when you use the Tor network your data is passed from your connection point to Tor. You won’t be directly accessing the internet, instead using the Tor network to provide anonymity. The main difference between a VPN and Tor is that a VPN protects your privacy whereas Tor provides you with an anonymous connection.

Tor Network

That might seem a little confusing as you’re probably thinking that a VPN provides an anonymous connection too. Well, it does and it doesn’t. The ‘internet’ will see your information and connection as masked, but your VPN provider will have access to your information. It may provide a no-logging policy, but it still knows where you’ve connected from. You have to trust your VPN provider not to leak that information.

When you access the Tor network, you don’t have to worry about trusting anyone. You are a virtually anonymous person, making it extremely difficult to track or identify who you are. I’m not saying that the Tor network is completely foolproof, because no technology is, but it’s as good as.

How does TOR work?

The Tor network’s sole purpose is to allow you to engage in internet activities anonymously. The network itself has thousands of servers around the world, run by volunteers. Before connecting to the Tor network, the software will select 3 servers and will build a path between the servers.

The first server will connect to the internet (exit node), whilst the software encrypts your connection/data that can only be decrypted by the exit node. This is then repeated with the middle server so the encryption is doubled. The same is then done with the server that first receives the data from your computer (guard node). Your messages are therefore encrypted three times.

Image credit: The Tor Project

Understandably, the Tor network can take a while to get your head round. Here are a few points to summarise how the Tor network works:

  • The Guard Node cannot see your messages due to multiple layers of encryption. It can see your IP address and knows it needs to forward your message, but doesn’t know what it ‘says’.
  • The Middle Server receives the message from the Guard Node and knows it has to forward this to the Exit Node. It can’t read your messages as there is still one layer of encryption.
  • The Exit Node can read the message because it’s job is to uncover the final layer of encryption. It sends the message to the internet but doesn’t know where it came from as the message was forwarded from the Middle Server.

Advantages of Tor

Using the Tor network instead of a VPN can provide you with a secure and anonymous connection. Using this method may benefit some, as outlined below. But of course, how you connect to the internet is ultimately your choice.

  • Anonymity: As with any technology, it’s impossible to say it can’t be hacked or attacked. However, the volunteers who work for The Tor Project are dedicated to making it as safe as possible. Tor can provide you with more anonymity than any VPN available.
  • Always online: Shutting down the Tor network is near-on impossible. Because there are thousands of servers dotted all across the world, it would be hard to shut down. There’s no central location for the network, it’s distributed to make it even safer and harder to get into.

Disadvantages of Tor

At this point you may be wondering why you’d want to use a VPN over Tor. Remember, VPNs do provide private and secure connections, but you need to trust your provider because they hold (some) data about you.

  • Slow connection: Because Tor is encrypted three times, the network can be very slow. It wouldn’t be an ideal solution to torrenting (P2P) or streaming. Even if your own connection is quick, it’s going through the Tor network.
  • Compatibility: The Tor Project is not available on iOS. The Guardian Project currently runs for Android devices, so you can’t use it on your iPhone or iPad.

VPN vs Tor: Which Is Best?

As with most software, knowing what each can provide is the first step in knowing what’s best. I can’t conclude whether VPN or Tor is better, because it’s ultimately down to what you want to use them for. I can however suggest when and where a VPN or Tor may be better to use in different scenarios.

Speed: VPNs provide better speeds compared to the Tor network. WINNER = VPN

Compatibility: VPNs are compatible on most devices whereas Tor isn’t available on iOS. WINNER = VPN

Torrenting: Most VPNs allow torrenting and provide decent servers for this. Because of Tor’s speed issues, I wouldn’t recommend using the network for P2P file sharing. WINNER = VPN

Anonymity: If you’re looking for complete anonymity, only the Tor network can give you this. WINNER = TOR

Ease of use: Both VPNs and Tor are easy to setup and use. WINNER = VPN & TOR

When to use a VPN over Tor

Here are some situations and scenarios where you may want to consider using a VPN over the Tor network. Again, this is just my personal recommendation and this may not suit your needs:

  • Access to online banking (private and secure connection)
  • Connecting to public WiFi
  • Torrenting
  • Streaming or access to blocked content
  • Online shopping

When you send sensitive information (like your bank account information) over the internet, hackers can intercept your data and connection. By using a VPN, you’re protecting your data as well as making yourself untraceable to said hackers.

If you regularly access public WiFi, it’s really important to use a VPN. Once you’re connected to an unsecure network, it makes it very easy for people to access your data. In fact, you don’t even need to be a ‘hacker’ to access information on a public network. It’s so cheap and easy to do that you could easily watch a video and do it yourself (obviously not recommended).

When to use Tor over a VPN

In most cases, a VPN will be suitable for the majority of needs. This probably leaves you wondering why you’d ever want to use Tor. In my personal opinion, Tor should be used if you really can’t risk being traced.

If you’re sending highly important documents or you hold data that can’t be seen by others, the Tor network can provide you with a completely anonymous connection. The Tor network is completely free to use, so price will never be an issue.

VPN or Tor: Conclusion

Using a VPN and the Tor network are fairly similar. We’ve gone over the pros and cons of each as well as outlining situations where one might outweigh the other. In all honesty, I think you’re probably better off choosing a VPN like ExpressVPN who offer strict no-logging policies, as well as decent connection speeds.

A VPN is a far more practical solution to browsing the internet. You’ll also be able to stream your favourite movies, access Netflix, torrenting (P2P), and won’t suffer from poor speeds compared to the Tor network.

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