If you are looking for a way to surf the web anonymously, you have a few options. The most common and reliable methods are Tor (The Onion Router) and VPN (Virtual Private Network) services.
Both methods allow you to hide your IP address (and your location) so that no one can track your online activities. In addition, both of these services enable you to bypass internet censorship and geo-restricted sites so that you can get access to any website or service that is otherwise blocked by your local internet provider.
How Tor Works
Tor, which is known as “The Onion Router”, is an anonymization service. Tor makes it difficult for anyone to trace your internet activities back to you and is designed to protect your privacy online. The software is free to install and use.
It works by routing your internet traffic through Tor’s network of randomly selected relays (run by volunteers) that are scattered all over the world.
All the traffic that passes through these relays within the Tor network gets encrypted and re-encrypted multiple times until it reaches the exit node (the last computer in the Tor network).
At the exit node, the last layer of encryption gets decrypted and the data is sent to the destination without revealing who the sender is.
According to the Tor website, “Tor helps to reduce the risks of both simple and sophisticated traffic analysis by distributing your transactions over several places on the Internet, so no single point can link you to your destination. The idea is similar to using a twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you — and then periodically erasing your footprints. Instead of taking a direct route from source to destination, data packets on the Tor network take a random pathway through several relays that cover your tracks so no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it’s going.”
Each of the nodes can only see the data and the IP address of the node in front and the node behind it. Therefore, no one can find out the complete path between your computer and the website you are connecting to at any point.
Additionally, each completed path is good for only 10 minutes, and then new random paths are generated.
If you connect to another website at a later time, the Tor client will select a new random path.
This prevents your ISP or anyone from knowing which websites you visit. Furthermore, the websites that you visit will not know your IP address – The website operators can only see the IP address of the computer at the exit node.
Tor’s strength lies in the number of relay volunteers. The more volunteers there are, the stronger the security of the whole Tor network becomes.
Tor is highly endorsed by civil liberties groups as it allows political dissidents, whistleblowers and human rights advocates to access the internet to freely express their views or communicate with journalists.
To use Tor, download the software from https://www.torproject.org/download/download.html.enand install it. The software is free.
How does a VPN Work?
VPN service protects your privacy by masking your IP address and encrypting your internet traffic. When you connect to a VPN server, that VPN server will act as a proxy to connect to your desired website on your behalf.
Since you’re connecting via the VPN server, the website that you connect to can only see the IP address of the VPN server, not yours. Furthermore, all your internet traffic is encrypted. Therefore, no one, including hackers and your ISP, can snoop on your web activity or steal your private information.
All that your ISP and network operator see is that you’re making an encrypted connection. VPNs are generally not blocked by ISPs since they are commonly used by remote workers to connect to their company’s networks.
Advantages and Disadvantages of using Tor vs. VPN
As you can see, both VPN and Tor can be used to bypass internet censorship and to protect your privacy. You can also use VPN or Tor to overcome geo-restricted content filters by connecting to a node or a server that is at a location that has unrestricted access to the desired content or website.
Both Tor and VPN have their advantages and disadvantages.
- No one can trace the sites you visit back to your IP address.
- Since the network is distributed, it makes it extremely difficult for any government or organization to shut it down.
- It is very slow – Because your data is routed through a number of relays, using Tor is very slow. Therefore, it is not recommended for browsing or streaming geo-restricted video content.
- Some ISPs actively search out and block Tor relays, making it difficult for some users to connect. China particularly is getting better at blocking Tor relays.
- Since the traffic at the exit node is unencrypted, anyone (the police, the government, or a hacker) that is running the exit node can see your internet traffic. Furthermore, anyone can setup a Tor exit node and there’s nothing to prevent that person from spying on the users. So if you are sending anything sensitive, be sure to use secure websites (with HTTPs).
- Connection speed is a lot faster compared to Tor since there’s only the VPN server that stands between your computer and the requested site.
- VPN provides better privacy and security than Tor.
- Some VPN providers include malware protection in the client software.
- A good VPN service costs money (~$30-60/year), although it is not very expensive. There are also free VPN services, but those have ads.
And the Winner is?
If you just want to surf the web anonymously, then Tor may be sufficient. But if you want better privacy protection, enhanced security from hackers, identity thieves and malware, and speed, then a VPN service is likely a better option.