Our data is a precious commodity and there are plenty of people who would like to get their hands on it, from spouses and marketing teams to crooks and state-sponsored spies. Because of that, tools like Tor and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are growing in popularity. But while both tools can enhance your online anonymity, they’re as different as apples and orang… onions.

What is Tor?

The Tor (The Onion Router) network protects users from tracking, surveillance, and censorship. It is based on free and open-source software and uses computers run by volunteers. Onion routing was created in the 1990s by US Naval Research Laboratory employees to shield national intelligence communications. Later, it was enhanced further by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and patented by the Navy. Since 2006, development of Tor has been conducted by a nonprofit organization called The Tor Project.

The Tor network can be used to access the regular Internet, where it hides your IP address from everyone, including the people operating the Tor network itself, or the Dark Web, where everyone’s IP address is hidden from everyone else.

How does Tor work?

When you use Tor, your traffic connects to the Internet through a “Circuit”, a collection of three computers, or Tor “nodes” that is changed every ten minutes. Your traffic is protected by multiple layers of encryption. This prevents anyone from snooping on your it, including most of the Tor network itself. Each computer in a Circuit peels back one layer of encryption, to reveal information that only it can see. They work like this:

  1. The Entry Guard is where your traffic enters the Circuit. It can see your IP address and the IP address of the middle node.
  2. The middle node can see the IP addresses of the Entry Guard and Exit Node.
  3. The Exit Node is where your traffic leaves the Circuit. It can see the IP address of the middle node and your traffic’s destination. The Exit Node behaves a bit like a VPN, so any service you use on the Internet will see the Exit Node’s IP address as the source of your traffic.
  4. If you are using the Dark Web, both you and the service you are connecting to have their own circuits, which meet at a Rendezvous Point.

How do I use Tor?

The most uncomplicated way to use the Tor network is through the Tor Browser. All you have to do is download and install the latest version from the official website and use it like a regular web browser. There is no learning curve; the Tor browser is based on Firefox and is as easy to use as any browser.

Is Tor illegal?

Tor is not illegal in most countries, including the United States. No one in America has been charged by law enforcement purely for using the network. However, Tor use may raise some eyebrows because it’s one of the most popular ways to access the Dark Web.

What is the difference between Tor and a VPN?

To understand the difference between Tor and a VPN, you must answer questions like, what is a VPN? A VPN routes traffic from your device to a VPN provider, through an encrypted tunnel. The encrypted tunnel prevents your ISP, rogue WiFi access points, or any other interlopers, from spying on your traffic before it reaches your VPN provider.

Your traffic joins the Internet from the VPN provider and uses your VPN provider’s IP address, so it appears to originate there.

Here are some important differences between the two technologies:

  • There are many VPN services to pick from, there is only one Tor network.
  • A VPN assumes you trust your VPN provider.
  • Tor assumes you do not trust the operators of the Tor network.
  • Your VPN provider aims to provide a connection that is fast and stable.
  • Tor aims to provide a connection that is resistant to advanced attacks.
  • VPN service providers are usually run by businesses answerable to local laws.
  • Tor is run by volunteers who can’t see what is passing through their servers.

Should I use a VPN with Tor?

The Tor Project discourages the use of both technologies together:

Generally speaking, we don’t recommend using a VPN with Tor unless you’re an advanced user who knows how to configure both in a way that doesn’t compromise your privacy

What is better, VPN or Tor?

The choice of which technology is better is determined by your threat model, which is will vary from one person to another. Broadly speaking, you can expect Tor to be slower than a VPN, but more secure against a wider range of threats, including threats that many Internet users are unlikely to encounter.

A good VPN service that uses the latest VPN protocol and provides multiple servers can offer speeds that are fast enough for gaming or video streaming, while bypassing geo-blocks, masking your IP address, and protecting you from rogue WiFi hotspots, ISP logging and other similar threats.