Online privacy is a growing concern among those surfing the Internet. When surveyed in January of 2019, 53% of online users said they were more concerned about their online privacy this year than they were last year. 

With these growing concerns, online users turn to different methods of software such as proxy sites, alternate browsers or private networks. Choosing can be tough, so we created a guide comparing the pros and cons of two of the most popular options: Tor and VPN. 

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What Is Tor?

graphic of the Tor browsing symbol

Tor, short for “The Onion Router,” is a non-profit organization that researches and develops online privacy tools. The Tor browser is a tool that anyone can download for Linux, Mac, Windows and mobile devices. 

The Tor browser is primarily used to protect your identity online. When using it, everything you do goes through their network and is encrypted, keeping your online activity private. 

How Tor Works

The Tor browser is able to disguise your identity online by moving your traffic across different Tor servers. As your traffic runs through these other computer servers, the data is encrypted so that nobody will be able to track your movements.

Tor has layers of privacy similar to the layers of an onion, hence its name. The more Tor users that utilize these servers, the more hidden your traffic becomes. These layers of protection are created by a maze of middle relays, end relays and bridges. 

graphic that shows how tor works

Middle relays are routers that handle the traffic along the way and can be created by anyone at home. End relays are the final relay in the chain and this is the IP address or numerical identification your connection will appear to be coming from. The hosts of these are prone to targets by police and copyright holders if there is any illegal activity detected. Bridges are Tor routers that aren’t publicly listed and are shielded by IP blockers. These make encryption possible, even in countries that regularly block all publicly listed Tor relays. 

Each relay only knows the IP address of the router before it. As your traffic passes through the relay, your original IP address is lost and the end relay replaces it. 

Not everyone who uses Tor has to run a relay, but the software depends on a community of people that are willing to. The more relays that are running, the faster the browser will work and the more secure it will be. 

Advantages of Tor

User-Friendly

The Tor browser is similar to most browsers you’ve used before. It’s accessible to many people and is user-friendly, making it easy to use. 

It’s Free

The Tor browser is free to download and use. More advanced users are also able to download the open-source project and make changes to the coding as they’d like. 

Safeguard Your Privacy

Tor protects your privacy by not revealing your IP address to the websites you visit. Anyone from journalists and political rebels to your average Joe can use this platform to keep their information safe from repressive governments or big corporations.  

graphic that shows the pros and cons of the tor browser

Disadvantages of Tor

Slow Speed

Since traffic goes through so many relays, there is often a delay in content. In particular, photos and videos have trouble loading. The more users there are who aren’t hosting a relay, the slower it becomes. 

Web Services Blocked

Many larger web services block access to Tor. When visited, these sites return an error message like a 404. Others allow access but include a maze of CAPTCHAS that are needed to enter the site. 

Legal Trouble

The Tor browser can be used by anyone. If someone is participating in illegal activity and you’re the exit relay, the traffic will be tracked to you. Governments are also very wary of Tor users and keep a close eye on them. Simply by being a Tor user, you could be marked as a criminal and have all your activities monitored. 

What Is a VPN?

graphic of a VPN

A VPN, short for Virtual Private Network, is software that is able to change your IP address and encrypt your Internet traffic. Originally, a majority of VPNs were used at corporations, allowing all employees of the business network to privately access sensitive information. It has now evolved to keep an individual’s online activity private from hackers, government censorship and any other dangers lurking on the Internet. 

How a VPN Works

A VPN has a network of servers located all over the world. When your Internet request is made, it goes through one of the VPN servers before reaching the Internet. When it passes through this alternate server, your IP address is changed. Not only does this protect your identity, but your device will seem as if it’s in a different place, allowing you to securely access the local network’s resources.

For instance, if you’re visiting China and want to access Facebook, you won’t be able to through their Internet connection because the site is banned by the Chinese government. However, using a VPN that connects your device to an Internet server in a country where Facebook is allowed will let you access the site in China.

graphic of how a vpn works

Advantages of a VPN

Speed

Since you’re only connecting to one server, the Internet connection is just as fast as you’re used to. You don’t usually have to wait any additional time for photos or videos to load. 

All Internet Content Is Accessible

No matter your geographical location, you have complete access to the Internet. Even if a site or service is blocked or changed in your country, you can connect to the version that others see in other countries. 

Control of IP Address

A VPN protects how you’re seen online. Devices are identified with an Internet Protocol Address or IP Address that tells their device type, location and online activity. By controlling your IP Address, you make it harder for people to identify you. 

All Traffic is Encrypted

Unlike Tor, which only encrypts requests while using the browser, VPNs are able to encrypt all the traffic coming from your computer. This makes them more secure. 

graphic that shows the pros and cons of a vpn

Disadvantages of a VPN

Software Failures

For a VPN to work, it needs to run properly. VPN leaks are common if the software isn’t installed and tested properly. 

Costs Money

While some VPNs have free options, the more secure versions cost money. There is usually a monthly fee to keep your activity secure. 

VPN Provider Can See Your Activity

Some VPN companies log your history while using their service. Look for a statement on your VPN’s website to ensure they aren’t collecting, storing or sharing any permanent identifiers of you. 

Tor vs. VPN: Which Is Better?

While both Tor and VPNs work to protect your online anonymity, VPNs are the most secure choice if used properly. Tor is a free browser that will encrypt your requests, but it’s slow, doesn’t have access to all sites and can lead to legal trouble. Meanwhile, VPNs are fast, encrypt all your traffic, give you access to any Internet site and put you in control of your intended location. 

When searching for the right VPN, be sure you install it properly and know how the company protects your data. For instance, the Panda VPN does not keep logs and walks you through proper installation. Try it out today — for free! For more help and advice about staying safe online, take a look at the tips and tricks on the Panda Security blog

References:

LifeHacker I EFF