This article has been just updated: December 13, 2019
There are many reasons why an individual might desire to keep their online activities private. In order to accomplish this feat, there are two prime options available. One is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service. The other is to download and employ the Tor browser when going online.
While the functionality of these two alternatives overlaps considerably, they are not totally equivalent. There are significant differences in what an online user can do when using each of these methods of concealing their online movements. We are going to look at various features of these tools and compare their utility in performing different actions online.
Why Would I Want to Remain Anonymous Online?
Here are some of the reasons that you would want to use Tor or a VPN service when you are online. In some cases, one of the solutions is superior to the other and we will look at those discrepancies later in the article.
This is not an exhaustive list and you may have other reasons why you prefer to keep your online movements to yourself. One thing is for certain, most of us would not tolerate someone following us around the city and noting every action we took.
If you don’t take steps to maintain online anonymity, you are basically accepting the fact that you are being tracked from the time you start surfing until you shut down your browser.
Differences Between Tor and a VPN Service
Both a VPN service and the Tor browser can provide anonymity while you are online. They mask your identity in different ways, as we will briefly describe.
When using the Tor browser your Internet activity is routed through different servers in the Tor network. Each server only knows where the traffic is coming from and where it is going. The IP that originated the online activity, which is the IP of your computer, is obscured by the many servers your Internet connection passes through. This is how the Tor browser keeps your identity private.
In a somewhat similar manner, a VPN routes your online activity through one of its stable of VPN servers. Once you are connected to the VPN server, that becomes the IP address which will be visible to sites that you visit. VPNs claim that logs are not kept, but the potential exists that there is some logging that indicates your machine was connected with a given VPN server. In some cases, this information could possibly be made available to authority figures which would negate the protection that you believed was in place.
Let’s look at some specific ways that Tor and a VPN service differ in what they offer and what types of activities they can perform:
1 Accessing a Variety of Websites
The surface web comprises a small fraction of the accumulated information that is available on the Internet. All of the websites that can be reached through your traditional browser are part of the surface web. Using a VPN service or the Tor browser allows you to reach the majority of these sites. Some websites may prevent access from VPN servers if they can identify them. Tor does not have these restrictions and can get to all of the surface websites.
Tor really differentiates itself from a VPN service with its ability to access deep and dark websites. Using the Tor browser you can reach many more websites than with a traditional browser and a VPN service. That being said, caution needs to be exercised as many of the sites below the surface web may promote illegal activities and be prone to spreading malware.
2 Accessing Certain Types of Content
The Tor browser blocks plugins like Flash, Quicktime, and RealPlayer. If the sites you intend to visit require these types of additions to your browser, then you should not use Tor.
This one is simple. Tor documentation recommends not using the browser for torrenting as it can expose your IP address. If you engage in downloading content from torrent sites, you really should be using a VPN service. Many jurisdictions have issues with the way copyrighted materials are distributed through torrents, and a VPN will keep you anonymous and allow you to download whatever you like without your ISP or anyone else knowing.
4 Connection Speed
One of the benefits of using a VPN service is that you will often experience better download performance than when you are simply using your ISP. A known problem with ISPs is the tendency to throttle your download capabilities, especially if you are accessing torrent sites and performing large downloads.
Based on the way the Tor browser operates by routing your online activity through multiple servers to protect anonymity, its performance is noticeably slower than a traditional browser such as Chrome or Firefox.
The Tor browser is available for all major computing platforms as a free download. While there are free VPN services, the more reputable services do entail some financial investment.
This is usually in the form of a monthly subscription fee which can be minimized by signing up for an extended period of time. If you choose to trust your online privacy to a VPN, it is worth the money to choose a reliable one. For example, the best VPN – NordVPN costs $2.99 per month.
6 Subverting Censorship
Either a VPN service or the Tor browser can be used to subvert government or organizational censorship. Both methods allow you to access sites which authorities may have decreed are restricted and are not available through your ISP and a regular browser. Tor gives you the flexibility of accessing the .onion sites which can be used to access news sites in censored locales. This is not a feature of any VPN service.
7 Concealing Online Intentions
If you are in a situation such as a business or government setting where the contents of your computer is monitored, employing Tor may not be a good choice. Though there are many legitimate uses of the Tor browser, it can set off alarm bells for security personnel who may question why you decided to install it on your machine.
You might have had intentions of using the browser to perform whistleblowing activities to reveal some sensitive information that deserves to be made public. The presence of the Tor browser on your computer can have the effect of causing greater scrutiny of your activities. Using a VPN is a more accepted method of maintaining privacy and protecting your identity and may not raise as many red flags as a download of Tor.
Should I Use Tor or a VPN Service?
As you can see from the preceding discussion, your selection depends on the online activity in which you will be engaging. For users who wish to torrent and are concerned with download speed, a VPN is the way to go. If you are interested in the additional sites that are available through the deep and dark web, then Tor is your only real choice.
If your goal is simply to protect your online movements and remain anonymous to your ISP and other prying eyes, either Tor or a VPN will work. Both will mask your machine’s ISP address which is how you are identified online. By employing one of these methods every time you surf the web, you can protect your privacy and hide your identity.