Tor has become very popular online, and many people use their service to browse the Internet anonymously. Tor (short for ‘the onion router’) was developed by the United States navy, and it helps bolster your online privacy by making it extremely difficult for online entities to track your online habits. By moving your traffic from Tor server to Tor server, someone who intercepts your data can’t trace it back to your computer. All you need to do to take advantage of these benefits is to download and install the Tor browser.
You might be thinking that Tor provides the same services as a VPN, right? This begs the question, “Which is better? Tor or a VPN?”
How Tor Protects Your Identity
Tor does not encrypt your traffic, so it only provides privacy – not security. It does make it very difficult for online entities to see where you data is going to and coming from though. Essentially, a user on the Tor network sends their data to relay servers. These servers relay your information to other Tor relay services and the path can vary among data streams. The same holds true for both sending traffic and receiving traffic (full duplex communications). Because the traffic is unencrypted, an online attacker could still read your data, but it would be extremely difficult for them to tell where it had originated from.
What a VPN Offers
VPNs, on the other hand, offer security as opposed to privacy. Encrypting your traffic with a VPN tunnel makes it impossible for an Internet attacker to read. However, if you use a VPN without the Tor network, someone would be able to see that you are sending data to and from a server. In short, they can see that you are having a conversation – they just can’t tell what you are saying.
However, this is only partially true. By using a monthly VPN service, your IP address is masked with an IP from your VPN provider’s servers. The only way someone would be able to tell who you are talking to online is by logging connections to the VPN server. Most VPN providers have an absolutely zero logging policy, some only log connections for performance reasons, and others reserve the right to inspect your traffic and disclose that information with law enforcement if they believe you are engaged in any illegal activity.
Attacks on the Tor Network
In 2013 and 2014, the FBI was confirmed to have been tracking people online through an attack they carried out on the Tor network. These attacks have been mitigated by the Tor team, but new threats seem to be surfacing. For example, some people had introduced new Tor relays in the past and used them to carry out an attack.
For now, the Tor network seems to be stable, but the N.S.A. and other governmental agencies are always looking for cutting-edge ways of capturing people’s data and tracking them online. This is not an uncommon practice for the United States government. For example, the N.S.A. was caught red handed collecting vast amounts of data on US citizens with backdoors into Google, Yahoo, and others. The involvement of the FBI on the Tor network completely defeats its purpose. The whole point of Tor is to be untraceable, but their backdoor into the Tor network completely devalues the network.
Despite the problems that Tor has experienced in the past, they still provide a valuable service. The question here isn’t whether to use a VPN or use Tor exclusively, but rather why you aren’t using both. With encryption technologies on top of an anonymity service, you will drastically reduce the chance that someone is tracking you online and simultaneously make your data impossible to read because it is encrypted. There are a couple disadvantages to Tor that will not always make it possible to browse the Internet with a VPN. Tor is a little slower because of the extra server hops and Tor is sometimes restricted by certain websites. Other than those two reasons, you should take advantage of both security technologies to keep yourself safe online. In the end, using Tor with a VPN simultaneously is arguably overkill. With all security measures, the more layers the better, but if all you want is to stream online content, download torrents, or browse privately, VPNs will often fit the bill much better.