Although Tor is a great tool against censorship, it is not flawless. Tor remains free and available to everyone at the cost of online safety. By design, their network of volunteer relays makes complete privacy impossible.
Fortunately, Tor isn’t the only privacy tool out there. VPN can be used instead of Tor or together with it, creating the ultimate tool to protect your privacy.
Tor security issues
Here are some of the security issues you may be exposed to browsing with Tor:
Unencrypted connection between exit node and destination server
One of the biggest issues related to Tor is the fact that the connection between exit nodes and the destination server is unencrypted. Meanwhile, although the connection between your device and the entry node is encrypted, your IP address is not hidden.
An IP address can often be enough to narrow down your identity to a few individuals. That means that if you combine the information from both the entry and exit node, you will know who is doing what online.
Powerful actors can easily abuse Tor for surveillance
It’s true that the entry and exit node is never the same person, and nodes don’t know the identity of other nodes. However, theoretically, there is nothing stopping a resource-rich party from controlling a large chunk of the network, increasing the chances of having both the entry and exit node data.
For example, there have long been rumors about governments running Tor nodes, allowing for bulk data collection.
This isn’t the only concern when it comes to powerful actors exploiting Tor. For example, in 2017, security researchers from Hacker House showed that it was possible to deanonymize Tor users by tricking them into opening a Windows DRM-protected file.
While this sort of attack would be too expensive for run-of-the-mill hackers, well-funded actors such as governments would be more than capable of carrying it out.
How to make Tor Browser safe to use
Tor is awesome if you use it correctly. To make it secure:
Use a VPN with Tor Browser. Choosing a reliable VPN is one of the best ways to add an extra layer of security and privacy. It effectively solves every security issue Tor has – namely, encryption and your IP being known to the entry node.
In short, using Tor together with a great service like NordVPN grants a very high level of online security and privacy.
Fine-tune your Operational Security. Many experts see OpSec as a significant vulnerability for Tor users. By this, we mean ensuring that key identifying information such as payment details, IP addresses, MAC addresses, and your OS are shielded and not transmitted at any point. And it also means making extra sure that your passwords are fit for purpose.
Resist the urge to stock up on extensions. The Firefox-based Tor browser can become vulnerable due to toxic add-ons. This includes free VPNs like Hola or rating apps like Web of Trust. So try to keep your browser setup as clean as possible.
NordVPN: the service with native Tor integration
NordVPN is quite possibly the most secure VPN out there and even has an in-built Tor integration – Onion over VPN. This service offers military-grade AES-256 encryption, a kill switch, and no leaks. It operates out of Panama – a privacy-friendly country, allowing NordVPN to have a strict no-logging policy.
Perhaps most importantly, NordVPN is the fastest VPN service on the market today. Relevant, because Tor impact speeds quite heavily, so you’ll want a fast VPN to combine it with.
Tor vs. VPN: do we have a winner?
While you can achieve the highest degree of security by combining Tor and VPN, both can be used individually. The Tor vs VPN discussion has many talking points, but here are some of the main ones.
Tor protects what the user is doing while inside the Tor browser and not activities outside it. On the flip side, a VPN service protects all of the user’s online activities, including the web browser and other apps.
Top VPN providers are great for your online security. The success of their business depends on patching out any vulnerabilities quickly and effectively. Tools like NordVPN have advanced features good enough for hackers or political activists in countries like China.
Nevertheless, while top VPNs are much more secure, they act as a hub for your data. Meanwhile, Tor disperses your data across volunteer relays. In practice, however, no-log VPNs carry little of your data, whereas the Tor relay network also has vulnerabilities.
VPNs generally have much faster connections.
Tor was not built with connection speed in mind. Your connection goes through a series of volunteer relays, as opposed to the hard-metal servers of VPN providers. These relays are often much less capable of dealing with a lot of traffic than VPN servers.
Furthermore, routing with Tor is random and much less efficient. Typically, your connection goes through several relays, which is always a detriment to performance. With VPNs, you can choose which servers you connect to, resulting in more control and better speeds.
To illustrate, we performed some speed tests. The server chosen by the online speed test when using Tor is in Accra, meaning our Tor connection is going through somewhere in that area (a good illustration of random and inefficient routing):
Here is the speed test using NordVPN. For fairness, we connected through a VPN server in Germany and chose the same speed test server in Accra:
As you can see, NordVPN is superior to Tor according to every metric: ping, download speed, and upload speed.
Tor is available on Windows, macOS, Linux, and Android. You won’t be able to run it on iOS or any other platforms.
Support for devices varies from one VPN to another. For example, NordVPN has custom apps for Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android, Android TV. They also offer add-ons for Chrome and Firefox, which is irrelevant for this comparison. However, NordVPN also supports a host of other device types there are no apps for: routers, smart TVs, etc.
Streaming, torrenting, and gaming
Tor is essentially good for one purpose: browsing (censored websites).
VPNs are much more versatile. You can use them for:
- Streaming. VPNs can help you bypass geo-blocking and unlock platforms like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, HBO, Hulu, and much more
- Torrenting. Downloading copyrighted content can get you into trouble – VPNs can hide your identity. The good ones are also fast enough to make torrenting convenient
- Gaming. VPNs can be used to improve your ping (in some cases), and they can also unlock services like Nvidia Shield or Steam
This is where Tor takes the edge over VPN: Tor is completely free.
VPNs come in free versions and paid versions, but the free ones have all sorts of issues. The Best VPN services can cost anywhere from $1.00-$15.00/month (with prices being higher for shorter subscriptions).
There are limits to the safety of Tor Browser. While it is certainly great as a free tool, the technical characteristics of Tor mean it can never be completely secure.
The safest way to use Tor is together with a good VPN service (check our Best VPN for Tor list). However, it is also safer to use a VPN instead of Tor (assuming you choose a secure provider).