Why Use Tor, VPN or Other Secure Services?
Tor and VPN technology protects journalists and activists, defenders of human rights, political dissidents, or victims of sensitive crimes like stalking or even domestic abuse— where anonymity is a matter of real-life safety.
But Tor browsers and VPNs are also powerful and often necessary tools for the more casual, everyday Internet user. They are helpful for anyone who simply wishes to retain their privacy and have a say over their personal data. Our data is, after all, our property—so, why can’t we have a say as to who sees it or how it gets used?
For example, the respected nonprofit digital rights agency, The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) is a advocates the use of VPNs and Tor networks, because they are tools to help protect employment rights, civil liberties and free expression. Despite the alarmist media coverage you may hear about anonymous online activity, most of it is as harmless as standard web browsing.
To quote Edward Snowden, “Saying you don’t need privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t need freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.” Makes sense, right?
An Overview of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)
VPN clients connect you to a server location, creating a secure and virtual tunnel that encrypts your data using end-to-end technology that the rest of the Internet cannot peek in on, or otherwise hack into.
In other words, VPNs act as a third party to protect your outgoing information from the unsecured parts of the Internet, and to bypass censorship firewalls from compromising your Internet experience.
An Overview of Tor browsers:
For more details on “How VPNs Work,” click here to read the FAQ answer. For this section, let’s dive in more about Tor, which you may not know much about.
If you’ve seen the Tor logo before, you’ve noticed that the “O” is a cartoon onion. Historically, TOR was an acronym for The Onion Router, a Navy-based communications network that used layered encryption to keep important military information private. “Layered,” as in the many layers of an onion.
Commercial Tor browsers are not part of their namesake from the U.S. Navy, but they use the same layering technology, so the name prevails today. A Tor browser is a downloadable software that allows you to browse the Internet securely and anonymously. Actually, “Tor” refers to both a browser and a network that uses its nodes instead of VPN servers to connect you to the Internet.
Tor lets you connect to “onion sites” that aren’t accessible over VPNs. Onion sites can refer to sites on the “Deep Web,” which are simply not indexed or searchable by search engines like Google. Deep Web content is not, by default, illegal content, but it’s unnoticed by most people. By contrast, there is more intentionally-hidden content known as the “Dark Web,” which does specifically refer to criminal activity and illegal content.
The most famous Dark Web onion site in popular culture was the Silk Road. The Silk Road was an online marketplace where goods were paid with cryptocurrencies and accessed through Tor. It offered anonymity and became a haven for drugs and money laundering. There were rumors of being able to hire hit men as well, but not all details were made public my news reports.
Eventually, the FBI caught on and shut down the Silk Road/The legacy of Silk Road tarnished the idea of Tor browsers and anonymous web browsing. But this characterization is an unfair stereotype.
But just as with any technology, is it not the tool itself that is illegal, but what you do with the tool while yielding it. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to browse around an onion site, and a Tor browser is the only way to do so.
A word of caution: if you stick to most “.com,” “.org,” “.gov” or “.edu” sites, you’ll stay out of most trouble. If you venture into “.onion” sites, you can stumble across unsavory and often illegal content.
Common Uses for Tor and VPNs
- Secure your IMs, texts, emails, etc.
- Protect sensitive business info or intellectual property, etc.
- Protect your banking/investment info.
- Unblock geo-restricted entertainment content like Netflix, Hulu or Prime.
- Safeguard your data, whether at home or with public WiFi (e.g., at a coffee shop).
- Bypass government censorship or news media or adult websites.
- Various government, law enforcement and military applications.
How Do TOR and VPNs Differ?
Privacy vs. Anonymity
When we use terms like “privacy” or “anonymity,” we may intend them as synonyms because we assume they represent distinctions without a difference. But the difference between privacy and anonymity is important, and relies on trusting your service provider.
While a VPN keeps your data private from the outside world, Tor browsers keep you and your emails completely anonymous. If you trust your VPN (and you can trust most paid VPNs) you have little to worry about.
Technically, a Tor network keeps your info and online history a complete mystery to everyone. There is no middleman like with a VPN, who could theoretically access your data.
Granted, a solid VPN’s encryption tech usually means only one encryption is needed, but VPN and Tor technology are two means to the same end—privacy and security.
Access to Different Content
VPNs arguably offer more entertainment options because Tor browser often have trouble accessing content that uses plugins like Java, Flash and RealPlayer. Tor doesn’t play well with most plugins, because the plugins offer a way to reveal your IP address.
Conversely, a VPN cannot access a deep-web “onion” site without a Tor browser, so if you’re looking for restricted news sites or other non-indexed sites, you’ll need Tor access.
VPN servers intercept your data and encrypt it before sending it out into the Internet. Using the same technology, VPNs grab onto incoming files and messages, encrypting and translating them through their server to protect you.
Tor’s layered “onion routing” is extra secure because your data has to pass through at least three randomly-selected Tor nodes (or relay points that shuffle layers of encryption) before reaching its destination (i.e., the site you visit, or the message that you email).
Upon reaching the final server destination, the final Tor node (a.k.a, the “exit node”) disentangles the final layer of encryption. The destination server (say Instagram) has no idea what the IP address of the previous nodes are, and especially not your computer’s address. They only see the information of the exit node, which is useless. In other words, encrypts the message multiple times, whereas a VPN usually only does so once.
Tor browsing is known to be slower speeds than with VPNs. Because of their multiple layers of encryption, your download speeds and general multitasking capacity will be slower than with a VPN or standard browser.
There are rare, but possible, government or hacker penetration points through entrance and exit nodes. Tor nodes are unable to fully encrypt data when entering the first node or existing the last node, so while your data should be protected, it is sometimes possible for the identity of the first or third node servers to be partially revealed.
What About Using a VPN AND Tor? Is it overkill?
Depending on how you spend your time online, you may have several reasonable motives to want extra privacy. For example, sending a private or anonymous message can be done with a private email company like Protonmail.
However, in order to send a truly anonymous email (meaning you totally cover up your fingerprint smudges from the shiny glass known as the Internet), you should also use a Tor browser or a Virtual Private Network.
Both are completely legal in the U.S. and most countries (click here for our FAQ on “Are VPNs Legal?”). Both offer privacy and added security—but although they offer many of the same benefits, there are some important differences. So, oftentimes it can make sense to combine a Tor browser with a VPN (and a secure email provider, if you send enough private emails to justify the cost).
Furthermore, the inherent strength of Tor, which is the randomness used when selecting nodes to route through, is also an inherent weakness. A node could randomly land on a virtual trojan horse—a disguised government agency or hacker lying in wait. This presents another strong argument for combining Tor browsing with VPN clients, to double down on encryption and security.