The now infamous Tor network is a powerful tool for anonymity online that until recently was a fairly well-hidden secret among a very select group of people. But what is Tor exactly and how does it work?

It’s an open source project that was originally designed by the Navy for anonymity purposes. Today, the goal remains the same and the people behind the project are dedicated to ensuring that users of the technology are protected from prying eyes – online snoops, hackers and government agents alike. 

The Tor project gets most of its funding from branches of the US government and a few different online organizations that advocate privacy. It is known for its ability to make users almost completely anonymous while they are in the network.

What is Tor used for?

Government officials, journalists, political activists, whistle-blowers, and criminals can be found on the Tor network. People from all walks of life can find plenty of reasons not to broadcast all of their personally-identifying information, which is why privacy tools like Tor have earned over 4 million users worldwide.

  • Using the Tor network, government officials can protect their identities while they are investigating sites that may be illegal or dangerous.
  • Journalists and political activists often use Tor to avoid detection from overbearing governments who would like to punish them.
  • Whistle-blowers use the network to avoid being found out by the large corporations and government offices they are reporting on. The popular leak site, Wiki Leaks, is known for being connected to the Tor network.  

How does it work?  

Tor works by relaying internet requests through a complex network of encrypted servers that are scattered across the globe.  

Instead of a user’s request going directly to the search engine’s server where it can be solved in a couple of simple steps, it is sent along the complex network of Tor servers where the request becomes anonymous and encrypted, before being bounced around the world to hide information connected to the sender and the receiver, as well as the contents of the message or request itself. 

Each request is encrypted into a packet, sometimes referred to as a node, which is hidden under multiple layers of encryption. The layers are, of course, where Tor (The Onion Router) gets both its name and logo. The request is then sent from one relay to another many times over. Each relay along the path knows almost nothing about the relay before it, and absolutely nothing about any and all relays before the previous one. In practice, that means user anonymity is always guaranteed – until the information gets to the final relay where all the information is ‘unpacked’.  

What is Tor browser?

The easiest way to connect to the Tor network is to use the Tor browser. For as robust as the network is, the process of accessing it is surprisingly simple. The browser is a modified version of the popular open source browser, Firefox. It is packaged with all the code that is needed to connect to the Tor network. Like every other available browser, Tor browser is a file that you must install onto your system. Once installed and the browser is fired up for the first time, it requires information regarding the internet network type as it does its best to create the most secure connection possible. After that, the Tor browser opens up and is ready for use. 

Tor vs. VPN

Choosing between the two most popular online privacy solutions may seem like a daunting task to those unfamiliar with the pros and cons of each option, but with a little careful planning, it isn’t very difficult to choose the best tool for your specific needs. The one that you will ultimately choose, if not a combination of both, will depend on a few factors. 

Benefits and drawbacks of using VPNs 

VPNs can be excellent for many reasons, but they are not always the best solution. Let’s take a look at its benefits and disadvantages:

  • What VPNs excel at is covering up your physical location and IP by creating a relay between your network and the server that you are requesting information from. So when a person is using a Virtual Private Network and wants to contact an online service like Netflix or Google, the services being connected to do not recognize where the request originated from. 
  • As an added benefit, when a device is connected to a VPN, the entire connection is secured – not just the browser being used. That is an important distinction when comparing a VPN and Tor because the browser is not the only thing connecting to the net. Apps, operating systems, and features regularly check for updates, as do viruses, malware, spyware, and ransomware. Although the security offered by Tor is top-notch, its browser cannot cover the entire network.

Learn all 7 major benefits of VPN services   

The main drawback of a VPN

  • VPN server is owned by a private company which has the ability to log their customers’ personal information and internet habits. Whether they say that they keep information or not, most often governments can force them to reveal certain things that the user might not wish to have revealed. 

Learn about VPN security risks

Benefits and drawbacks of using Tor

Using Tor comes with a number of benefits like hiding an IP address under multiple layers of encryption from the sites you visit; helping to keep identities secret and avoid risks of being exposed. Yet, there are a couple of caveats that cannot go overlooked.

  • Compared to a VPN, the results from the Tor network often come in a little slower due to the fact that the requests are being bounced around through several relays – often very large numbers.  
  • The other important issue with the security that comes from using Tor network is that even though all the information sent through the network of relays is encrypted, the final relay has the job of unpacking the information before sending it back to the originator of the search. The unpacking process creates ‘exit nodes’ that can reveal identifying information if the requests were made to an unencrypted server. Being sure to always request information from sites bearing an ‘HTTPS’ in their address solves this issue. 

VPN or Tor: which one should I use?

When it comes to figuring out when is the best time to use either a VPN or Tor, the answer comes down to a few main considerations. The most important is why you need to use the services in the first place.

– If the need for privacy and anonymity is ‘high-stakes’ and the need for speed is minimal, Tor can be the better option – so long as the exit nodes are not giving up sensitive information.

– For general, everyday use that does not come with a lot of risk, VPNs are faster and easier to use.

Can I use both?

It is possible to use the two services together, but there isn’t a lot of benefit to doing so unless you do not trust the VPN provider. The Tor network can hide many things from the VPN provider, but the exit nodes can still reveal information on the Tor side. As a general rule of thumb, it is fine to use the two services together if you disconnect from the Tor network any time you plan on entering identifying information on an unencrypted site. 

Bottom line

Both Tor and VPN are powerful tools that allow users both privacy and anonymity, but it is important to remember that both of them must be used properly. By weighing the pros and cons of each option along with the ways in which you plan to use them, you will be able to devise a secure method of connecting to the net which is perfectly suited to your needs. 

In summary, try not to send personally identifying information over the internet as much as possible, but if you have to, ensure that you are doing it in the safest way possible. Using VPN or Tor are great when all the caveats are taken into consideration because they both have the ability to provide the highest levels of security available today. Watch the vulnerabilities and avoid common mistakes to keep your identity and personal information secure.