If you want to go online anonymously, there are two main options.
Tor – named for The Onion Router – is a conventional, if rather dated-looking, web browser.
A VPN, by contrast, creates a secure internet connection between your device and another machine.
Both options provide greater privacy and security than accessing the web using a standard browser like Google Chrome or Apple’s Safari.
They’re also great for receiving secure communications over a potentially insecure public network, such as a cafe or hotel’s free WiFi service.
Below, we consider the relative merits of both options.
What is Tor?
The Onion Router – download link here is a web browser that deliberately bounces individual packets of data around the world en route to its destination.
This prevents the normal traffic analysis used by ISPs and Governments to identify what information is being sent to specific devices.
Tor is popular with people exploring the deep web, and many deep websites feature .onion URLs that may only be viewed in this browser.
Go deeper: What is the Dark Web, and what’s on it?
Despite these dubious associations, Tor is entirely legal. It’s part-funded by the American Government, and is popular with dissidents and activists in politically unstable countries.
Tor’s interface resembles a 1990s web browser like Netscape Navigator, and its indirect method of data transfer makes it far slower than today’s streamlined browsers.
What is a VPN?
A virtual private network uses a website or piece of software to establish a secure connection from your device to a host server.
It’s like logging into online banking and then viewing content through a customised webpage portal.
Encryption keys establish a confidential link, which can’t be hacked or viewed by third parties.
A VPN provides rapid internet access over conventional broadband networks, opening up more bandwidth as needed.
VPNs are popular with academic institutions, giving students a secure location to upload work or receive feedback and results in confidence.
Our guide to five essential features for any VPN highlights important attributes including apps so you can use your service on Android/iPhone, along with 24/7 professional customer service.
So which is best?
While Tor and VPNs can both spoof your location (to circumvent issues like geographic restrictions on local radio station broadcasts), each platform offers distinct advantages over the other:
- Tor is completely free to use, whereas VPN worth using are always paid-for, usually per month
- Tor is as simple to operate as any other web browser
- It provides the same level of anonymity to everyone, without requiring the premium subscriptions associated with high-security VPNs
- Tor actively helps users to avoid cookies or identifying information, whereas more poorly-rated VPN providers store session logs that could be used to identify specific users.
- VPN software is widely available, and is even embedded into Microsoft Windows
- A VPN works on any device, but Tor has to be downloaded and installed – which isn’t practical if you don’t have administrator privileges for a specific device
- It’s better suited to streaming content, whereas Tor struggles at peak times
- A VPN can be used on a phone or tablet just as easily as a desktop or laptop