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Tor versus a VPN - Which is right for you?

Tor vs VPN

This article assumes you have a basic understanding of The Onion Router (Tor) and Virtual Private Networks (VPN), as well as a desire to protect your privacy on the Wild World Web.

Having chosen to not take refuge under a large, dense object for the last several decades (not that i'd blame you), you're probably aware of how fragile privacy and freedom has become in the digital age. At the network level a lot of people (including Ed) recommend The Onion Router (Tor) in order to protect ones privacy. Others prefer using a Virtual Private Network (a VPN is really more like proxy than a network) and still others recommend using both with a VPN preceding the connection to Tor. If you're wondering what i recommend, i don't; i'll leave that up to you since it's not a one-size-fits-all thing and, more importantly, i'm not qualified to make such a suggestion and neither are a lot of other people making such suggestions. What i would like to do however is point out some of the differences between the Tor and so-called VPN's as i see them because each has distinct advantages and disadvantages.

  • Using the Tor network is free, as is the Tor Browser, a privacy and security hardened version of Firefox used to connect to the Tor network. The Tor Project source code is public and the servers can be run by anyone, including bad actors, however there is debate as to how much impact a malicious operator can have.
  • Unless you run your own VPN, which which i suspect requires a god-like level of technical prowess and secured hardware to do it right, a VPN service will cost you roughly $5 to $10 per month and a lot of the companies providing service are highly unethical. As a rule of thumb, never trust a VPN provider offering their service for "free"! Personally i also avoid the big names, like NordVPN. I simply don't trust the large corporations, many of which have poor track records.
  • While it is true that no VPN can be fully trusted regarding security or privacy, the same is true for the Tor network. See for example, Tor Network Compromised by Single Hacker Stealing Users' Bitcoin: Report and 'You Are Not Anonymous on Tor' - Study Shows Privacy Network Offers Superficial Anonymity. We know there is a massive amount of money to be made in the malware department and vendors, many of which sell exploits to governments and intelligence communities, have little or no incentive to disclose the vulnerabilities they discover. These vulnerabilities can remain secret for weeks, months, or years. Knowing this, i think it is dangerously illogical to conclude that anything is completely secure, including Tor.
  • Picking a bad VPN that doesn't respect your privacy is easier than getting your drone stuck in a tree, however there is only one Tor Project and one official Tor Browser and the source code for both is public and open to auditing.
  • When using the Tor network, it is strongly suggested to use the Tor Browser (a fork of Firefox) in its default configuration. Remaining anonymous on Tor depends heavily on uniformity and so, with few exceptions, you can kiss your beloved add-ons goodbye. With a VPN one has more choices as to what browser and add-ons they use, though these choices must be weighed carefully.
  • Avoiding browser fingerprinting and tracking is much easier to achieve with Tor, while preventing fingerprinting outside of Tor is quite difficult whether using a VPN or not. In both cases however, and assuming you've taken some precautions, the websites you visit will not know your physical location and they will be less able to fingerprint and track your browser. That said, nothing can protect your privacy if you log on to privacy toxic surveillance platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, YouTube, etc., using your real identity or the same credentials you used prior to using Tor or a VPN.
  • Because of the layers of encryption that Tor employs, bandwidth limitations, the load on the nodes, etc., Tor will generally provide a slower web experience, higher latency, and a less stable connection than a good VPN. This problem is exacerbated if one adds more nodes to the Tor circuit. File sharing is discouraged with Tor and latency sensitive traffic such as gaming is out of the question. Even watching high definition videos can be problematic.
  • Tor may insulate users from a malicious operator better than a VPN, partly because a Tor circuit is composed of multiple nodes whereas a VPN usually presents a single point of attack. Though some VPN providers offer an option to route traffic through more than one node, all the nodes are controlled by the same company. One could chain multiple VPNs, but at an added cost.
  • Different people require different levels of privacy. A journalist wishing to communicate privately with a source may be better off using Tails and Tor. On the other hand, someone wanting to download copyrighted content whilst avoiding nasty-grams from their ISP, or stream high resolution videos, or game, or most other non-sensitive and bandwidth intensive activities, may be better off with a VPN.
  • With Tor it is non-trivial and ill advised to choose what exit node you want to use, whereas any good VPN provider will allow you to swap between any of their servers and usually this requires only a couple of clicks using their client software. One advantage of being able to choose among servers is the ability to access content which is blocked in a particular geographical region, such as certain videos.
  • VPN client software may not be open source and may not respect your privacy even if it is, however any good VPN provider will allow connections using other methods, such as with OpenVPN or, better yet, WireGuard. Setting up a connection manually to your VPN provider will require a bit of time verses using their app, though doing so is usually fairly easy. This issue is non-existent with Tor.
  • Both Tor exit nodes and VPN nodes are subject to having their IP addresses blacklisted by governments, corporate websites, and even private website owners which results in the inability to connect to them. In the case of a VPN this is fairly rare in my personal experience, however those who shop online are more likely to have trouble with either Tor or a VPN, though the problem may be exacerbated with Tor and the Tor Browser whereas with a VPN one can easily switch servers to try and solve the problem. That said, if you're shopping on-line and giving up personal information, there's probably no point in routing the connection through Tor or a VPN and in either case it is trivial to bypass them.
  • Choosing to use Tor is more of a simple yes or no decision, while choosing to use a VPN requires research in order to locate a trustworthy provider that offers a stable service. The VPN market is exploding and so are the number of ethically retarded providers. Be careful when reading VPN "reviews" because many of them are written by the providers themselves or paid bloggers. I've had several offers from VPN providers asking me to post content here in exchange for money (i always turn them down).
  • Unless you configure your network device to route through Tor, the only traffic routed through the network when using the Tor Browser is the web traffic generated by your browser, whereas with a VPN, typically all network traffic generated by your computer is routed through your VPN. With a suitable router you also have the option to set up the VPN on the router so that anything that connects to your local network is protected. This is fairly easy to do with routers which support it, or those for which you can install custom firmware, such as DD-WRT, OpenWRT or the formidable Turris Omnia or Vikings routers.
  • An entire Tor network, including the entrance and exit nodes, can be run on a single machine using software such as The Shadow Simulator. This may present very serious privacy/security issues that undermine network layering if such a configuration is employed by a malicious party such an ISP, law enforcement or the intelligence community.

Because of the garbage disseminated in the mainstream media, much of the public sees Tor as being synonymous with the 'Dark Web' which many believe is nothing more than a haven for criminals. Tor should be thought of simply as a service and, as with any service, it can be used by bad people to do bad things or good people to do good things. For the average person wanting to protect their privacy, Tor can provide a portal to access the same websites one visits every day, but in a more private and secure way. That said, yes, there is a 'dark' web that is accessible only through software like Tor and while some of the content available in it is indeed illegal and extremely offensive, there is also a lot of quality content which is otherwise censored on the open web.

Some people believe that using Tor will attract the attention of the intelligence community. While it is apparently true that using encryption may raise the eyebrow of 'The Man', such criminal spying on the public by governments is not at all limited to those using Tor. More importantly, our inherent right of free speech is under severe attack not only by governments, but by ourselves as individuals who tend to self-censor simply because of the belief that we are being watched. This is a very dangerous situation because we cannot work toward a free and transparent society if our ability to communicate is compromised.

I'm hesitant to recommend a VPN provider if you decide to go that route, however in the interest of hopefully steering you away from much of the garbage out there, i will offer my personal insight.

NordVPN is a huge player in the VPN market and i have used them in the past, however the shear size of the company, their cheap prices, and a recent merger very much bother me. Nords service wasn't very good for several reasons, one being the stability of the connection and another being blacklisted IP addresses. Nord has also had some serious security issues.

NordVPN, TorGuard and VikingVPN disclose security breaches

NordVPN, one of the most well-known VPN provider, had confirmed a security breach in early 2018. At fault, there's the data centre provider from Finland, where the server was hosted. The data centre provider used an insecure remote management system that NordVPN was "unaware" of. Although NordVPN seems to be playing down the occurrence, there's an anonymous post on 8chan, shared by Cryptostorm's Twitter account, that claims that the hacker had root access to the server. NordVPN states that the TLS key that was stolen was expired, and no VPN traffic could be decrypted.

The same 8chan user showed access to servers from two other VPN providers – TorGuard and VPNViking.

I have also personally found piles of user credentials on pastebin.com for NordVPN services.

Many speak highly of Mullvad VPN, however i have no experience with them. I have also used AirVPN which i rather liked, but it has its problems also.

More recently i started using AzireVPN, a smaller and somewhat unique Swedish company that focuses on the WireGuard protocol which has several distinct advantages over the older OpenVPN protocol. There are a few key reasons i switched to Azire, one being that they claim to own, secure and configure their hardware rather than lease it like virtually everyone else, Nord, Mullvad and Air included. They also claim to employ some interesting security measures to prevent tampering, including physically sealing unused ports and running everything in RAM.

More recently Michael Horowitz was kind enough to recommend OVPN to me which he writes about in his article, VPN's and Defensive Computing. The article is well worth a read. Like Azire, OVPN (they do WireGuard too) also claims to own, secure and maintain their own servers which are locked in isolated racks and run the OS in RAM. OVPN has a nice article on their Security page about all the measures they take to protect their customers.

All the hardware used to operate our service is owned by us and locked into isolated racks. All servers operate without any hard drives as the operating system only resides in the RAM memory.

Another interesting bit is that OVPN carries insurance to cover any legal fees.

Conflicts are expensive and complicated, especially when crossing country borders. We've decided to sign up for an insurance that covers legal fees as an additional layer of safety, which grants us the financial muscles to refute any requests for information.

In the case of any third party demanding information about our customers, we are fully prepared to go to court and will do everything in our power to prevent anyone from getting access to customer information.

Azire and OVPN are two of the very few companies i know of that takes these kinds of precautions, however there is no proof for some of these claims.

Regarding performance i have had next to zero trouble with Azire's service and latency and bandwidth has been excellent. Unlike Nord, i haven't had to switch server locations every few days because of network degradation or blacklisted nodes. Lastly, Azire accepts cryptocurrency so you can purchase and use their service anonymously without having to provide any personal information. If you choose Azire, please consider using my affiliate link which gives me some free time with them.

FreePN is also another interesting player in the privacy market. This project is building a free, open-source, distributed VPN service similar to the Tor network. There are caveats with this service however, so please do your homework. Read: FreePN: Free, open-source, distributed VPN.

Lastly, i recommend reading the following articles by Sven Taylor of Restore Privacy:

Regarding the article, Why Does Anyone Still Trust Tor?, it is my non-professional opinion that Sven goes a little overboard in attacking Tor. I think that you could swap out Tor with any VPN service or web browser or operating system and make several of the same arguments. There have been many bugs and vulnerabilities discovered in Tor that were patched and very likely many more that have yet to be discovered, or have been discovered but not disclosed, and the same is true for all software in general. In the end, privacy on the internet can never be guaranteed and is becoming harder and harder to achieve.

Article resources:

Miscellaneous resources:

4 thoughts on “Tor versus a VPN - Which is right for you?”

        1. Mike King says the military-industrial complex doesn’t exist and that Tulsi Gabbard is essentially an agent provocateur possibly tied to military intelligence

          Mike might be a good guy, but i think he’s reading way too much into some of the things he writes about

          i would also say that to consider any single source as the dipstick to compare all others is dangerous – no one gets it right every time

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