Tor vs VPN
While Tor and VPN are both tools for privacy and online security, the trade-offs and functionalities of the two are entirely different.
Here's a quick breakdown of using Tor vs a VPN, and how you can use them together for maxiumum privacy and security:
Tor functions like a layered (hence the name, The Onion Router) series of proxy servers that route your traffic in a zig-zag around the Internet before it reaches your destination.
There are at least three hops your data travels through.
- The entry node, which inevitably knows your IP address
- The middle node, which prevents the exit node from finding out which entry node you used, and makes it very hard to correlate this information
- The exit node, which knows what site you are connecting to, but does not know who you are
The three nodes separate your IP address from your destination and enable two individuals to communicate without either party, or any in between, knowing who the other is.
The Tor Network is typically accessed through the Tor Browser, which is derived from Firefox. The Tor Browser is optimized for security and privacy, unlike most other web browsers, which are optimized for speed and do not defend adequately against attacks such as browser fingerprinting.
Though Tor is pretty much the gold standard for anonymizing your Internet traffic, the system is slow and inefficient. The Tor Browser by default only protects your browsing data, not other applications running on the side, which all have to be configured separately. A more secure option is TAILS, an entire operating system that allows you to route all your data, from all programs, through the Tor Network.
A VPN creates a single hop between the user and the resource they are accessing. The VPN theoretically has the ability to read your traffic, know your home IP address, and see what you are connecting to (though ExpressVPN keeps no logs of its users' traffic).
The main advantage of a VPN is that it hides your IP address without compromising your Internet connection speeds. A VPN will also protect all data to and from your device, without any extra configuration.
Using Tor Over a VPN
Using Tor over a VPN can greatly increase your privacy and will provide access to the Tor Network even where it is blocked, such as corporate and school networks, or certain countries.
Setting it up is easy: simply connect to your favorite VPN server and then launch the Tor Browser. All your browsing with the Tor Browser is now as anonymous as it can get, though you still need to be careful of identifying yourself through data you voluntarily submit to sites.
VPN with Tor gets you all the privacy protection of the Tor Network, plus no Tor node will ever get to see your home IP address. You will also not have to worry about being flagged by your home network for using Tor, as all they see will be encrypted traffic to your VPN server.
Your VPN service will still not see what you are doing inside the Tor Network, and if there is a bug in the Tor Browser (as has happened before), a VPN will put an additional layer of security between it and you.
Note: Setting up a network in which you first connect to Tor, then tunnel through it with a VPN (i.e. "VPN inside Tor") is more complex and offers little benefit.
Tor + VPN = Best For Security
Tor is an incredible privacy tool. When it comes to achieving anonymity on the Internet, it is currently unbeatable, and may be the only thing that can thwart the surveillance of a well-funded and sophisticated adversary.
Using a VPN together with Tor is even better and only increases your privacy. A VPN can help you gain access to the Tor network while being unable to read your Tor traffic.