4 min read

VPN vs Tor: A Closer Look at Anonymous Browsing Tools

Vlad CONSTANTINESCU

January 06, 2022

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VPN vs Tor: A Closer Look at Anonymous Browsing Tools

It’s well known that both Tor and VPNs can protect your online identity while connected to the Internet. However, the functionality, speed and effectiveness of these privacy tools differ in key ways.

If you care about protecting your privacy and want to stay anonymous while browsing the Internet, then you’re no stranger to concepts such as VPN and Tor.

Privacy protection is paramount nowadays, particularly in these times when many users of online services believe privacy can’t be violated if you have nothing to hide.

While online profiling isn’t necessarily wrong, it often gives online entities an edge by providing them with sensitive data about you. This, in turn, helps them create personalized content such as ads, articles, and news by building it around your digital persona.

Privacy protection tools such as VPN, proxy, Tor and even Incognito mode on various browsers can help you dodge trackers and prevent online profiling.

While, in essence, these tools work towards the same goal, there are many differences between VPNs and Tor, much like in the VPN vs. Proxy scenario.

How does Tor work?

Tor, which is short for The Onion Router, is a free software solution that lets you communicate anonymously on the Internet by routing your traffic through a private network.

The purpose of the network is to cloak your location and online whereabouts, preventing entities that perform network surveillance and traffic analysis from tracing you.

Tor routes your traffic through at least three randomly selected volunteer-hosted relays (servers) from around the world, as follows:

  • The first relay (guard) receives your request, strips a layer of encryption, and directs traffic to the next relay
  • Subsequent relays peel an additional encryption layer and direct your traffic further
  • Last layer (exit node) removes the final layer of encryption and routes your request to your destination of choice (i.e., the website you’re trying to access privately)
  • The website generates a response and returns it to the exit node
  • The website’s response (reply) follows the same path to you, only backward

The first relay knows your IP address, but nothing else except for the address of the next relay.

The ensuing relays don’t know your IP address nor the website you’re trying to access. Instead, they only see the address of the subsequent relays to direct your traffic to.

Many users wrongly believe that Tor is a VPN, mainly because a VPN uses a similar method to protect your privacy (by routing your traffic through a private network).

How does VPN work?

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) protects your online privacy by routing all traffic between you and the destination (website or online service) of your choice.

When using a VPN, you run web requests through a secure, private tunnel rather than sending them directly to the destination. The tunnel hides your real identity and location by assigning you a new IP address and making it appear as if the requests come from the VPN server you chose.

Trustworthy VPNs such as Bitdefender VPN also provide you with military-grade encryption so that, even if various threat actors were able to monitor your traffic, they wouldn’t be able to make anything out of it.

Pros and Cons of Tor

As you’d expect, there are some upsides to choosing Tor over VPN. Namely:

  • Free, open-source software
  • Intuitive interface
  • Uses encryption and randomly chosen relays to route your traffic

However, there are also some disadvantages associated with choosing this privacy protection tool over a VPN, as follows:

  • Sluggish speed caused by bouncing traffic through several relays
  • Several web services block access to Tor, which means you can’t access certain websites
  • Tor is often used for illegal activities, which could mean trouble if you’re unwittingly hosting the exit node for a criminal

Pros and Cons of VPN

As you’d expect, Tor’s weaknesses mirror some of the strengths of premium VPN services. Key advantages of choosing VPN over Tor include:

  • Fast connection speed, since VPN routes your traffic through a single server
  • A VPN encrypts all traffic that leaves your machine, not only browser traffic
  • You can control your IP address and location by switching to a different server
  • Unblocks geo-restricted content and is more difficult to detect and block than Tor

On the other hand, certain privacy-seeking users may stray from VPNs and choose Tor instead for the following reasons:

  • Subscription plans for premium VPN services are often expensive
  • Certain VPN providers can monitor and log your private online activity
  • Untrustworthy VPNs with weak security systems can leak critical traffic data, such as DNS requests, WebRTC, location, and IPv6

While these potential downsides are not to be taken lightly, they can be easily countered by turning to a reliable VPN, such as Bitdefender VPN.

VPN vs. Tor

All things considered, while Tor and VPN essentially both are meant to protect your privacy, the way these tools work is wildly different. Consequently, they both have their downsides and strong points, but in all fairness, VPNs have the upper hand by being more reliable.

While Tor can keep you anonymous effectively by encrypting and routing your traffic through several randomly selected relays worldwide, it is also slower. It has a bad rap of being used for illegal activities and can only encrypt browser traffic.

A sturdy VPN like Bitdefender VPN, on the other hand, encrypts and directs your traffic through a single secure server, is faster than Tor, cloaks Internet traffic from your entire device, and won’t log or monitor your Internet traffic while connected to it.

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