If you want to use the internet in complete privacy, today’s web browsers probably aren’t for you.
The likes of Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge are constantly monitoring and recording user activity, using vast amounts of collated information for various unspecified purposes.
That’s not always a reassuring message in these privacy-conscious, post-Facebook times.
Fortunately, there are alternatives, in the form of a Virtual Private Network or the Tor browser.
Both disguise an individual user’s location, supporting discreet information transmission without leaving an electronic trail behind.
So are the Tor Browser and VPNs the same?
Not at all.
The Onion Router is a web browser designed and part-funded by the American Government.
It distributes data randomly through numerous nodes, making it almost impossible for third parties to determine who viewed what information, when or where.
However, in other respects, Tor is a conventional (if slow and dated-looking) browser.
A VPN is a standalone piece of software, creating a secure connection between two computers so encrypted data can be shared.
VPNs are commonly used for remotely accessing another device, or sharing content over a peer-to-peer network.
Tor will load any normal website, whereas a VPN is more like the dedicated window used to access online banking – more focused yet less versatile.
Which offers greater privacy?
This depends on which VPN you’re planning to use.
There are different types of data transfer protocols, including ones specifically designed for mobile networks or online streaming.
OpenVPN uses almost uncrackable 256-bit encryption keys, while the SSTP protocol in Windows 10 couples this with 2048-bit authentication certificates.
Even so, Tor offers plenty of privacy-focused features as well.
Its slow loading times are attributable to information being bounced all round the world, preventing eavesdroppers or Government agencies monitoring user activity.
Tor doesn’t store session data or site histories, and it can view .onion sites contained within the Deep Web – where privacy is paramount.
One size doesn’t fit all
Depending on your personal circumstances and requirements, there may not be a choice between the Tor Browser and a VPN:
- VPNs work equally well on mobile device and MacBooks, which isn’t true of the desktop-focused Tor
- Tor also has to be downloaded and installed, so it’s unsuitable for devices where someone doesn’t have administrator privileges
- A VPN is far better for transferring large files or live streaming – Tor is almost unusable as a streaming portal
- However, Tor is the only gateway to the Deep Web’s unique attractions
- It offers the same level of protection to everyone for free, whereas VPN users often have to pay for premium services
- Tor also champions the deletion of tracking data like cookies, while some VPN providers store session logs that could identify user activity at a later date.
If privacy is paramount, you should only use a VPN that explicitly promises not to store session logs.