Remaining Anonymous Online: VPN vs Proxy vs Tor

obrBy Mohseen Lala — Last Updated: 19 Apr'17 2016-02-02T22:33:04+00:00Google+

Due to security scandals and the sharp rise in online attacks around the world, people are more concerned with Internet security today than ever before. And remaining anonymous online is simply a smart idea these days.

There’s just one problem, we have so many options at our disposal that it can be hard figure out which options provides the best security. And if you aren’t technologically literate, it can feel downright intimidating trying to decipher complex jargon that leaves us scratching our heads.

The best way to make a decision on how to protect your data is through information, so we need to look more closely at the most popular security techniques people use today. Which is why today we’re taking look at VPN vs proxy vs Tor as a means to efficiently secure and obfuscate your online identity .

They are all closely related, but each one has its fair share of advantages and disadvantages. For personal use, the leading three services people use to ensure that hackers and agencies don’t track them online are:

  1. VPN services
  2. Proxy servers
  3. Tor

But should you use a VPN and Tor together? Or use a VPN and a proxy at the same time? Let’s dig a little deeper to understand how each one of these technologies interplay and how they can protect you online.

How Tor (Supposedly) Protects Internet Privacy

Tor is one of the first services people turn to when they want anonymity while Internet browsing . However, there are still a lot of people that have never heard of Tor and many that don’t understand how it works, so let’s start with the basics.

Tor is a service that offers connections to a network of Tor servers. The basic guiding principal behind Tor is to ferret data around through a network of invisible servers, before it is reintroduced to the public Internet. By sending data through the Tor’s servers, it becomes impossible for online entities to see where the data originated from.

Tor logo

Tor is run by a network of volunteers who choose to host a Tor server. As data flows through the network of Tor’s servers, it is encrypted so third-parties cannot intercept and read the data (or that’s the ultimate goal, at least).

By sending communications through the Tor network, people won’t be able to read metadata such as the original source IP address. Your encrypted data is then sent to multiple Tor servers – called relays – before finally being decrypted and sent to the ultimate destination server. The idea is to obfuscate data so that it can be sent to a server from any number of Tor servers.

That way, hackers and government agencies can’t see the physical host computer from which the data was originally sent.

In theory, that all sounds good and well. However, do note some of the drawbacks of the Tor service, namely the FBI and US government’s involvement in the Tor network. One of the problems with the Tor network is that it helps criminals and innocent people both stay hidden from prying eyes.

Naturally, criminal activity attracts the attentions and involvement of the FBI. Essentially, good people using the same network as child pornographers and other disgusting criminals, will lead to undesirable associations.

The FBI managed to successfully attack the Tor network.

New information on Tor’s website shows how the FBI paid Carnegie Mellon University researchers to aid in the attack against Tor. Click to tweet

But this is just one example of an attack on the Tor network, and there have been many others. All of these attacks and compromised identities make many people question whether they are really safe. Because there are so many drawbacks to using Tor just on its own, you can’t really get the added anonymity benefits unless to is used with a VPN at the same time.

Rely servers are run by volunteers, so you have no way of knowing who runs the servers your data is flowing through

Proxy Servers Explained

Most people have at least heard the term ‘proxy server’ and used them without even knowing it. But what is a proxy server, and how does it help increase security?

A proxy server is essentially an intermediary device used to access web content by redirecting traffic. Think of a proxy server as a middle-man in your Internet’s connection. Before data can reach the web server you are trying to connect to, it must first flow through the proxy server – for both inbound and outbound data.

Sort of like a traffic controller.

For example, let’s say that you want to YouTube while eating lunch at work. Unfortunately, your employer has blocked access to YouTube by blocking its domain. What is one to do? Simple, just use a proxy server to circumvent the network restriction. After you’ve configured a proxy service inside a web browser, all the data is sent to the proxy server instead of being sent directly to the website being accessed.

Since the proxy server doesn’t have any domain restrictions, it is able to grab the video content from YouTube and send it back to your computer. But let’s take this one step further and consider how this can increase anonymity.

Any websites that you access through the proxy server are going to think the initial request originated from the proxy server – not your local computer. Not only will this hide who made the original request for a website, but it can also help spoof your IP address to access content that has been geo-blocked.

Let’s take a minute to talk about the different types of proxy servers.

1. Web Proxies

Web proxies mostly facilitate web browsing with HTTP traffic. In our earlier example 9about accessing YouTube), we were talking about a web proxy. But web proxies do have a few drawbacks, such as the inability to handle certain plugins and scripts (such as Java and Flash).

Unfortunately, because some web proxies are overused, they can easily be added to a blacklist of blocked IP addresses. A proxy server that is blocked by numerous websites loses its value, but they do hold a certain value for basic web browsing.

2. SOCKS Proxies

SOCKS proxy servers are more flexible than web proxy servers, since they allow more types of traffic. That means you can use SOCKS to:

  • Download files with FTP (File Transport Protocol),
  • Use them in P2P applications (in theory)
  • Send mail

However, they have several drawbacks such as:

  • Inherent security issues, 
  • They are slower than web proxies,
  • They need to be individually configured to each piece of software

3. Public Proxies

Public proxy servers seem to be people’s first choice when trying to circumvent network restrictions, because public proxies are free to use.

But their free price is a double-edged sword, which can make them unpredictable and unstable. You can find both SOCKS and web proxies that are publicly available, but they usually aren’t maintained as well as a paid service. In addition, they can easily become overburdened with too many users, and they generally contain rampant security threats.

After all, you have no idea who’s running the server. As such, it is highly inadvisable to use a public proxy service for anything personal. If you need to do some research or access a popular website that has been blocked, you’re usually in the clear as long as no personal information is sent through the proxy server.


Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) Explained

With so many rampant security flaws in the Tor network and proxy services, you might be wondering what a VPN tunnel has to offer. I don’t want to discredit Tor completely, because it is a great service to use if you first secure your data with a VPN tunnel (to add an extra layer of protection).

But it’s important to understand that a VPN tunnel has features that combine the best benefits of Tor and proxy services. Check our ExpressVPN review for a perfect example of such a service.

When a connection is established with a VPN server, all of the data between your computer and the server is 100% secure, as long as you use the latest security algorithms.

Find the best VPN - Ultimate Guide

The technology to break these encryption protocols simply doesn’t exist, so rest assured that people won’t be able to read your data.

The VPN server then acts in a very similar manner to a proxy server. All of the websites accessed and all of the traffic sent and received is sent to and from the VPN server. This provides the anonymity of Tor and proxy services by masking your IP address.

But there are several other key benefits to using a VPN service (over Tor and proxy services). First of all, because they are privately owned companies and networks, you don’t have to worry about interference by third-parties (with the exception of a handful of US-based VPN services).

Most VPN services also have strict no-logging policies to ensure that they protect the security and identity of customers. Yet another problem with Tor is that the relay servers could be run by anyone. You don’t know who they are or where they live, but a VPN service has a corporate identity – that is, you know exactly who is running the servers. The same holds true for proxy servers, and you don’t always know what is happening behind the scenes.


In Summary…

The question isn’t whether it’s VPN vs Tor vs proxy , because they should really be used together.

In addition, you probably wouldn’t want to consider using a VPN and proxy server at the same time, because VPN servers really act like proxy servers to begin with and adding an extra proxy server could increase latency (and complication).

For the best security, at the very least use a VPN service, because they are more reliable and secure than proxy servers and the Tor network.

However, the Tor network does compliment VPN tunnels when used together. Any question or comments? Leave them down below and thanks for reading!

 

 

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