A common question for the privacy conscious is what is TOR and how does it compare to a VPN? Also, what are the advantages of using TOR vs VPN and vice versa? First of all, TOR and VPNs aren’t really direct competitors but can be seen as different solutions.
TOR stands for “The Onion Router” and is an anonymisation service. It does this by routing and bouncing your data through a random selection of other people all over the world who run TOR relays. These TOR relays bounce your data off other TOR relays before reaching your end destination. Each TOR relay only knows the identity of the person it receives data from and the next relay it forwards it to so it becomes very hard to track your true origin even if some of the TOR relays maliciously recorded data. In fact, even the NSA has problems deanonymizing a TOR user.
At the exit node which is the last relay in the TOR network, your data exits the TOR network which is unencrypted and is sent to the intended destination without revealing who the sender is.
A VPN service, such as BolehVPN, works by routing your traffic through a specified VPN server of your choice and this connection is encrypted. It then establishes connections on your behalf and the end destination only sees the VPN server and not the original sender.
VPNs are also used by many companies to secure their internal communications, allow their workers to access their servers remotely and securely or to connect several branches in different locations together.
Although there are concerning reports that the NSA has decrypted VPNs using weak compromised protocols like PPTP and even possibly L2TP/IPSec, there is no evidence yet to suggest that the NSA has broken OpenVPN thus far which is based off very different cryptographic protocols.
VPN and TOR are both technologies that can be used to protect your privacy and anonymity. At the end of the day, a VPN is more versatile but it involves a great deal of trust placed in your VPN provider. With TOR, you potentially enjoy additional anonymity since there are much more layers and participants involved but are subject to slow speeds and can only be used for low bandwidth applications. TOR usage is also more likely to flag you as doing something suspicious. It is our belief that for the average privacy conscious user, a VPN provides sufficient privacy with good usability and versatility.
However it is worth noting that these technologies can be combined together and you can use a VPN over TOR or a TOR over VPN which too has its own pros and cons. We will cover this in later posts.