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Tor vs VPN vs Proxy: Which Should I Use To Secure My Internet?

Michael Gargiulo - CEO, VPN.com

By: Michael Gargiulo, CEO at VPN.com

Updated: 7:29 AM ET Fri, January 22nd 2021

Graphic with an animated people considering the differences between tor, VPN, and proxy.

Technology and particularly the internet have become increasingly entwined with our personal and professional lives. Every day, hundreds of millions of websites and devices transmit unimaginable quantities of data between themselves. It’s no surprise to anyone that this data has become a hot-button issue in the modern world, with corporations and state actors both seeking to utilize or control this data. If you want to protect your data or bypass region locks, there are many prominent choices to choose from such as Tor, proxies, and VPNs, but when it comes to choosing Tor vs proxy vs VPN, which one is right for you?

Each of these tools is quite different from the next and has its uses, advantages, and disadvantages. Making the right choice will require you to understand the mechanics by which they protect your data. It’s also worthwhile to understand why you should be protecting your data.

Why Protect Your Data?

Many reasons drive people all over the world to protect their data. While the most common data intrusions are relatively benign advertisement choices, they’re still unsettling. It seems like virtually everyone has experiences with searching for something and immediately facing an onslaught of targeted ads. There are also more malevolent actors looking to use your data with malicious intent. Privacy intrusions by state and non-state actors are both a rising concern for many people around the world.

Constantly Maintain Your Privacy

The desire for privacy is simple and virtually universal. There’s no justification needed for someone to seek privacy in a world of expanding mass surveillance. However, there are also many practical applications where data protection is invaluable.

Access The Internet While Traveling

While outside the home or waiting at the airport, you’ll often rely on public Wi-Fi. However, there are several security holes in any public router. For one thing, another person may check into the same Wi-Fi network and attempt to infect your laptop with a virus. What’s even more dangerous is the risk of accessing a fraudulent router with a name that makes it appear to be a reputable public router. In reality, someone may be using this connection to trap unwitting individuals and monitor their traffic. In either case, they can compromise your passwords, contact information, and credit cards.

Data protection is also something that many organizations incorporate. In recent years, most businesses have tightly interwoven their day-to-day operations with the internet. That’s more true than ever in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated trends toward remote working. Business travel remains a necessity for many, though. These individuals may find it inadvisable or even impossible to access business-related information from a cafe or airport.

In either case, you can use data protection software — a VPN, to be precise — to secure your information.

Sidestep Region Locks

There are many reasons for someone to seek to bypass region locks. International citizens might be unable to access a website for work-related research. Alternatively, the purpose might be as simple as watching a movie that a streaming website doesn’t offer in your nation of residence. No matter the purpose for seeking a workaround to this sort of matter, privacy protection can help you do so.

Websites use your IP address to identify your physical location. Since proxies, Tor, and VPN software hide your IP address, you can access content you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. This is a landmark feature that many VPN and proxy services advertise as a key selling point. Both are potentially good solutions to a region lock, so choosing between proxy vs VPN will hinge on other factors.

Resist Authoritarian Governments

Common uses for internet anonymity are generally innocuous, but in some regions, it’s a deadly serious affair. Many governments around the world utilize surveillance and website restrictions due to the threat that free information poses to their reign.

Dissidents and political activists may hide their data to safely organize and access outside news sources. Anywhere that a government repeals protections for internet privacy, it’s common to see skyrocketing demand for data protection services. In recent years, this appears to have played out in the United States after the FCC repealed net neutrality as well as in Hong Kong.

Proxy vs VPN vs Tor: Online Privacy Basics

There are a few key terms to understand when it comes to online privacy. First off is your IP address. This is a digital address that each device uses to interact with the internet. Data transmits from your IP address to websites and back from websites to your IP address. An internet-connected device has several points where third parties can access the data. Your internet service provider can record your search history itself, and any third party can track it during transit via traffic analysis. Finally, your data is only as secure as the website that represents its internet destination.

Proxies, Tor, and VPNs all work to conceal your data while it passes between your device and its destination. They do this by several mechanisms, such as creating gateway points between your device and the websites you access. In this case, your data still exists and is observable, but it’s impossible to attach it to a specific IP address. As a result, using a proxy leaves you effectively anonymous. Another important means of data protection is encryption, which scrambles the information so observers cannot read it.

While encryption and proxy servers can protect your data during transmission, it will always arrive unencrypted to the website you visit. If you’re observing a purely informational website that only consists of text or images, that may be fine, but if you want to fully protect your privacy, it’s essential that you only visit websites that use a protected https address. Compared to http addresses, they offer security certificates that hide your data from potential observers. It’s doubly important to never input any personal information on a website that lacks security certificates.

Proxy

Early adopters of the internet and older advocates for information privacy will likely remember using proxy servers. These intermediary servers are one of the oldest, simplest, and most effective ways to hide your activity online. While no longer as popular as they used to be due to newer alternatives, they still have several valuable uses.

Tor

Tor may seem like a strange name, but it refers back to the original name of the project. It’s an acronym for The Onion Router, which tells you a surprisingly great deal about how Tor works. In the same way that an onion has layers, this browser utilizes many layers of protection. It uses a decentralized system consisting of many volunteers, each one operating as a proxy server. By randomly sending your data through numerous proxy servers, Tor provides a virtually uncrackable layered defense.

VPN

While proxy servers and Tor rely on the same basic mechanism, a virtual private network (VPN) uses more modern privacy protection techniques. This starts with encrypting your data before passing it through the Wi-Fi network you’re using. Then a digital data tunnel hides your IP address and masks it with an IP address that the provider owns. VPN companies typically own servers around the world, which also provides the opportunity to bypass region locks.

How Do They Work?

Each of the different choices works differently and will present you with unique benefits and opportunities. If you understand how they each work, you’ll start to appreciate which is the right choice.

Proxy

A proxy is essentially a midway point between a user and the websites they browse. Once you request access to a website, data will flow from your website to the server you’re using. When the website receives your data, it will appear to originate from the proxy server. This allows you to hide your activity on the internet by making it impossible to connect your data to your IP.

While cracking a proxy server is possible, it’s a difficult undertaking that relies on exploiting vulnerabilities. Better services are generally more secure and might even route your traffic through multiple gateways. Overall, these characteristics make proxy servers an excellent choice to browse the internet anonymously and access geo-locked content.

The main drawback is that your connection speed is at the mercy of the server. Data must cross the geographical distance from you to the proxy and then access the website from there. Then it completes the return journey to your website. As a result, greater security places greater demand on the speed of each intermediary and may result in your browsing becoming multiple times slower. It’s possible to find free servers, but some of these may be fraudulent or poor-quality. A paid service will be able to achieve greater security and speed, generally.

While it’s common to refer to proxies as a monolith, there are three distinct types of proxies.

  • SOCKS5 Proxies
  • Transparent Proxies
  • HTTP Proxies

SOCKS5 and HTTP servers are fairly similar. They work in the manner described above, except that HTTP only works for accessing websites. A SOCKS5 proxy works for online gaming, streaming, and other online activities. On the other hand, transparent proxies work in reverse by blocking access to certain websites. If you’ve ever tried to access Facebook from the office and found an error screen, you’ve experienced a transparent proxy. Conversely, they’re a useful asset for managers looking to crack down on such behaviors.

Tor

Tor is mechanically the same as a proxy except that it applies the principle of ‘bigger is better’. Tor vs proxy is largely a matter of scale, and The Onion Router magnifies the advantages and disadvantages of proxies. The volunteers who constitute its vast network of intermediary servers create an effectively impenetrable network. There are so many layers hiding your IP that a Tor user enjoys effective immunity from traffic analysis.

Additionally, the service is completely free and simple to use. Once you download the Tor browser, the rest happens automatically. You’ll input a search through the browser just like any other, which randomly directs your query to a node in the network. Then it automatically selects another node and repeats this process many additional times. Since each node is only aware of the prior node’s IP address, none of them can ascertain your information.

Overall, there’s only a single vulnerability that a Tor user needs to remain wary of. Proxies do not encrypt your data and cannot protect it at the final node, where it contacts the website. As a result, the person operating the final node will be able to see your activities if you aren’t contacting a secure website. If you use Tor, it’s essential to visit https-protected websites to enjoy the full benefit of data protection.

Another unique feature of Tor is that you can use it to access .onion websites, also known as the dark web. However, the dark web is host to a great deal of illegal activity, and it’s advisable to avoid exploring it regardless of your intent.

VPN

When comparing a proxy vs VPN or VPN vs Tor, you’ll see a unique mechanism at play in virtual private networks. Any device utilizing any router or network can use VPN software to tunnel to a separate exit node. This carries the same ultimate benefit as a proxy server. However, you’ll appear to be using a different IP. You can use this to access region-blocked content and enjoy greater privacy and security. Since your IP address and data cannot be connected, you’re safe from traffic analysis. This is one of the two ways that a VPN provides you with greater security while using the internet.

Encryption is the other key element; while proxies and Tor do not encrypt information, a VPN does. This provides additional security without a significant loss in speed that utilizing multiple proxies can cause. Data encryption also allows for security on unfamiliar or insecure routers. Whether you’re working at a cafe or an airport terminal, it’s possible to perform all your normal duties via encrypted virtual access.

The digital nature of a VPN also makes it uniquely flexible. An end-user can set their VPN to access a business network or even their home network. Gaming enthusiasts are sure to appreciate the ability to access a local area network from abroad virtually, as well.

That said, it’s important to note that a VPN cannot guarantee security on its own. If you visit websites without security certificates, your information will ultimately be vulnerable.

Proxy vs VPN vs Tor: Pros & Cons Of Each

When comparing proxy vs VPN vs Tor, they all fulfill certain basic roles. Each protects you from traffic analysis, achieves IP masking and misdirection, and allows you to avoid region filters. From here, there are many other advantages and disadvantages to take into account.

Proxy

A proxy server is a simple, classic solution to the problem of online privacy. When your needs don’t extend beyond basic, anonymous web browsing, proxies are an excellent choice. Using this option is often particularly affordable or even free. However, a free service is likely to be slower and generally offer inferior service. Seeking out a reputable service, whether paid or free is essential. When it comes to advantages and disadvantages between proxy vs VPN vs Tor, you might think of a proxy server as the performance baseline. Particularly in comparisons with Tor, as they both rely on the same core function.

Tor

The way that Tor utilizes layers of proxies makes it an extremely formidable tool for protecting privacy. Additionally, it’s completely free and extremely easy to use since the user interacts with it the same way they would with any other browser. However, the association between Tor and illegal activity of the dark web can put a target on the backs of those who use it.

While it’s impossible to track what people search for with this tool, your ISP and traffic analysts will detect the initial download. Furthermore, since the data is unencrypted at the exit node, analysts could track shady activity to you if your computer is the exit node. It’s also typical for web services to block activity they see originating from a Tor user.

Another important drawback is that Tor is rather slow. Each node jump increases latency and slows down your connection. As a result, this choice isn’t the best for streaming or downloads. The Onion Router is a peerlessly powerful solution for one or two very specific tasks, but a standard proxy is more well-rounded.

VPN

Overall, a VPN is likely the best option. Virtualization and encryption are the two factors that give it the largest leg up on proxy-based privacy solutions. Since you can use a flexible, encrypted data tunnel to connect to networks around the world, a VPN can do many things a proxy can’t. However, this enhanced service typically comes with a substantial pricetag. The best you can do with a VPN for free is to download a respected, paid service that offers a certain amount of free data protection.

Which Solution Is Right For Me?

In short, Tor is the best and only choice for accessing .onion websites or using ultra-layered proxy protection. A standard proxy is a good choice for private browsing and bypassing geo-locks, while a VPN brings greater service at greater cost. If it’s still hard to choose which one is right for you, check out vpn.com. The VPN.com team is a group of experienced IT industry veterans.

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