Let’s get one thing out the way right at the start here. To be interested in this subject does not mean you are up to no good. In fact, despite the rather shady reputations VPNs and certainly TOR has, there has, in reality, never been a better time to be thinking about looking after your internet privacy.
Regardless of where you live in the world, your Government will (rightly) be keen to monitor communications of the types of people who seek to do others harm, and there’s nothing wrong with that obviously.
Where issues surrounding human rights and even basic privacy come in though issues begin to arise when Governments decide they will ride roughshod over that and monitor the many in the hope of catching the few.
Further issues arise if a Government is monitoring the internet in order to quash detention. Human and civil rights abuses abound, even in this day and age and we should all be able to go about our daily lives without being permanently snooped upon – especially if you are doing nothing wrong.
Politics aside, today we are going to have a look at VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and TOR (The Onion Router – so-called because of the many layers it has) and help you decide which, if any, you should be considering using.
Tarred by the same brush
While you have probably heard of VPNs you may not have come across TOR before, and if you have it will doubtless have been about how it is a modern-day den of iniquity – home of drug-dealing websites such as Silk Road and the Dark Web in general.
VPNs have been going more mainstream over the last couple of years and have cleaned up their image with big organizations such as Nord VPN established solid reputations in the field.
It seems plenty of people out there are prepared to pay good money to maintain a bit of privacy. Who knew?
I’m sure by now we have all been hacked, had our email and login details spread nefariously across the internet because let’s face it, we can’t trust companies to keep our info safe. They hoover it all up and then like to leave it as an unencrypted text file on an open server somewhere and suddenly our identities are being cloned and they get to send out an email saying ‘sorry about that’.
Not good enough by a long chalk and that’s why more and more of us are moving beyond Google’s Incognito mode – which looks like it has been anything but anyway into a realm where our every click can’t be tracked and sold on for profit.
So what’s the difference between VPNs and TOR then?
A wise man once told me that VPNs are all about privacy and TOR is all about anonymity – that’s the same thing surely? Nope. Privacy hides what you do and anonymity hides who you are. See, similar but fundamentally different.
You see, a VPN will take hold of your internet connection and outgoing traffic and shoves it through another remote server, usually somewhere in a far-off land that you get to choose through the software. That means, by the time your connection arrives at the website you are visiting, it will think you are connecting to it from a completely different part of the world.
It is for this reason that people tend to use VPNs to view region-locked content – say you wanted to watch US Netflix from the UK – that sort of thing. It is also handy for people in countries where not all of the internet is available because of Governmental restrictions. It’s worth noting though that using a VPN to break the law in these countries is generally frowned upon in a very bad way. For some though, it is worth the risk and is the price of freedom.
VPNs also have slightly more mundane uses as well, such as securing your connection if you accessing free public WiFi or stopping your ISP throttling certain types of outgoing traffic such as torrents.
In the main though a VPN will let you get to places on the net where some people might not think you should be allowed. So we can consider it a tool to circumvent this.
The thing to remember about VPNs however is that although the sites you visit won’t know where you came from the VPN provider itself will still have your connection details and traffic data so you had better trust them, potentially with your life in some cases. They all say they don’t keep logs, but well, what do they say? Trust no one? Take a look at our guide to the best VPNs out there that you can trust.
TOR is slightly different in that it takes your internet connection and routes it to a completely random sequence of servers that are all run by volunteers dedicated to the cause. This makes it virtually impossible to trace your movements on the web. You leave no trace either on your machine, the servers you pass through, or where you ultimately end up.
You can run into slight issues sometimes in that you enter Tor through an Entry Relay and leave through an Exit Relay and some websites recognize this and can block traffic originating from one.
Your ISP will also be able to tell when you are using TOR for this same reason, and while using the service is certainly not illegal, well, it does get used for illegal activity to so you run the risk of being damned by association.
TOR has been used by journalists and whistleblowers the world over however to maintain their security online, so don’t just listen to the bad news. As with everything, educate and research for yourself.
Should you be scared of the Dark Web?
It sounds scary right, and in truth, some people will gravitate towards it as a way of conducting nefarious activities but the Dark Web is not illegal to visit because, well, you can only get in trouble if you do something wrong, just like real life.
Having said that, down below lurks the unsavory underworld that operates in a largely untraceable, unregulated rabbit warren so it is entirely possible that in visiting dark websites you might stumble across disturbing content that you had no intention of looking for.
The dark web is fundamentally a collection of unindexed websites that are inaccessible by normal browsers and you need the TOR browser and the address to visit them. They won’t pop up on a Google search, although ironically you can google “best dark web sites” and get a list of places to start hunting around.
I think it’s important to highlight (again) that sites on the dark web (which all end with .onion in their address) are not all about being able to buy drugs, guns, or hiring hitmen. Facebook has its own .onion site which is accessible from countries that block access to it. Now, if you can stop laughing about Facebook being concerned about your privacy we can move on.
Military seal of approval
TOR was actually developed originally by the US Navy and was designed to help foreign agents in other countries communicate online safely. With that in mind, the CIA has its own .onion site so its resources can be accessed safely and securely.
Another really important dark website is the five-time Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica whose mission statement is “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”
When to use a VPN and when to use TOR
Really in this day and age when your online security has never been in more peril, we would suggest using a VPN all the time when practical. As for TOR, it is something that has its uses at more specific times. It’s certainly not something you would want to use all the time if you are just checking the football scores.