Tor vs VPN: the web privacy shootout

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When you want to stay secret online, VPN and Tor should be at the top of your privacy shortlist.

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They are based on a similar principle where they protect your Internet traffic with industrial-strength encryption, then shield your identity by routing it through their servers.

But there are also big, big differences — their encryption, what they’ll protect, how they connect to servers and more. (See our dedicated guides to what a VPN is and what Tor is if you need background detail.)

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which one is the best? We are going to take a look at the seven most important privacy factors you should consider to pit Tor against a VPN. Let’s see who comes on top…

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oblivion

Tor is free for anyone to use, no registration required, no need to hand over your email address, payment details or anything. Connect to Tor and your traffic is routed through three servers, randomly chosen from among thousands around the world, making it nearly impossible to log your activities. Even if someone tries, only the first Tor server has your IP address, and otherwise has no idea who you are.

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Sign up for most VPNs and you’ll usually have to create an account, provide your email, and probably pay. Whenever you connect, the app logs in with your account details, ensuring that the provider knows exactly who you are. And as you’re always using a server run by the same company, it’s easy for your browsing history to be connected to your account.

Result: A big win for Tor, which keeps you as anonymous as possible.

Multifaceted talent

Tor does a great job of maintaining your privacy when you’re browsing online. In fact, it’s probably the last in private browsing. But that’s where the feature list stops – it doesn’t try to do anything else.

VPNs encrypt all your traffic, not just browsing. Streaming, games, P2P apps, they all get the same level of protection – that’s why streaming VPNs have become so popular. And if that still isn’t enough, install a VPN on your router and it will also cover smart TVs, game consoles, video doorbells, and all your other connected devices.

Result: Tor handles one of its tasks very well, but VPNs conquer it with their ability to protect traffic from all your devices.

ease of use

Tor is just a simple browser (a custom version of Firefox, if you’re interested.) It doesn’t have any complicated settings. Nothing special to learn. If you’ve ever used any other browser, you’ll be immediately at home with Tor.

Using a VPN can be as simple as installing an app, but it often takes more work. You may have to change the main settings – kill switch, DNS leak protection – to suit your needs. VPNs can sometimes cause network issues or conflicts with other apps, making troubleshooting some potentially difficult problems for you.

Result: Tor effortlessly beats VPNs at the stake of simplicity, no question. No hidden complications, you can install and use it just like any other app.

Speed

Tor works very hard to protect your identity, at times encrypting traffic and routing it through servers around the world. It does a lot to keep you safe, but there’s a price to pay: It really, really, really slows you down.

VPNs typically encrypt your traffic only once, and send it through a single server located in your own country. These aren’t the low-powered volunteer-powered servers you get with Tor, either—the fastest VPNs use dedicated servers with leading-edge connectivity and ultra-fast connections in high-powered data centers.

Result: A clear performance win for VPNs, where low overheads, enterprise-level network connections and powerful hardware leave Tor far behind.

unblock

Tor is designed to hide your identity, and a big part of that is routing your traffic through a random set of servers around the world. London, Toronto and Addis Ababa today, maybe Frankfurt, Lima and Canberra tomorrow? This is great for anonymity, but it means you can’t use the service to unblock specific sites, as you can’t guarantee where your Tor exit node will be.

VPNs keep life simple by connecting you to a single server in your favorite country. If you want to unblock US Netflix, all you have to do is choose a US city. Well, there’s no guarantee it’ll get you in, but at least you have a chance.

Result: Tor’s anonymity-first design makes it unsuitable for most unblocking: VPNs for the win.

Weaknesses

Tor does a lot for your online security, but it has its limits. The exit node (the server that sends your traffic to its destination) can see and modify what you are doing if the connection is not encrypted. These servers are run by volunteers, so there is no way to tell if they are trustworthy. A previous report suggested that 23% of Tor exit nodes were engaged in malicious attacks on cryptocurrency users in 2020, and that 4-6% may still be involved in the same campaign.

VPNs have their weak spots as well. For example, in 2020 a NordVPN server was compromised. If a hacker takes control of a VPN server, he can also see what you’re doing. And if the VPN is malicious, it can set up its own system to log or modify your traffic.

Result: It’s tricky, but we’re giving the VPN a slight win. Tor’s exit nodes are always being run by hordes of people, and you will have little idea who or what they are doing. VPNs have their problems too, but they can at least reassure users with smart anti-hacking ideas like ExpressVPN’s TrustedServer (a server that runs in RAM), as well as logging and security audits.

cost

Tor is completely, completely, completely free without strings. It does not display ads or use analytics on apps or websites. If you want to use it, just go to the website, download, install, run. That’s all.

Most VPNs charge a subscription, usually somewhere around $3-$13 per month. There are free VPNs, but we mostly don’t recommend them: they’re often shady, with no idea who’s running them or how they make their money.

Result: An easy win for Tor. It is also more transparent than the average free VPN. Want to know who runs the service, where does the money come from? Check the Tor website, it’s all there.

Decision

The VPN won our shootout, but only made its way to Tor’s three- to four-figure privacy crown.

This may not be the right result for everyone. It all depends on your needs. If you absolutely don’t want anyone to know where you’re browsing—not your current network, ISP, or even VPN—Tor’s anonymity makes it a must. And if download speed or unblocking Netflix is ​​a priority, Tor scores a big fat zero: The VPN is a clear win.

Of course, you don’t have to choose. It is not about choosing one or the other. Use Tor where it works, a VPN for everything else, run them simultaneously when you need maximum security: it’s the best way to stay safe online.

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