Tor or The Onion Router is a privacy network that operates on a similar principle to a VPN but takes the process a lot further.
A VPN creates a secure communications link between your device and the VPN server, your network traffic is sent through that link and the VPN server sends it to the internet as if it were the original source, rather than your device. This protects your data from prying eyes and hides your IP address and location from the website you connect to.
Tor on the other hand connects through three VPN servers, randomly selected from a pool of entry, relay, and exit nodes. For each node there is a separate layer of encryption, hence the “onion”. The intent behind this is that the entry and exit nodes only know either your IP address or the webserver you’re connecting to, while the relay node prevents the other two servers from being able to directly communicate. This process makes it even harder to de-anonymise your browsing activity and link it back to you.
Tip: Some VPN providers offer a double VPN service that is based on this idea.
One big difference between Tor and a VPN is that VPNs have their infrastructure centrally managed by a company, whereas Tor is a distributed network, often run by enthusiasts.
The Tor network is primarily accessed by the Tor Browser. Its designed to strip away a lot of usability features and performance enhancements in the name of privacy, it also includes a number of privacy orientated extensions.
By default, the Tor Browser goes through the Tor network to access the internet. Once connected it can browse to any normal website, but it can also use a different protocol to access hidden “onion services” using the “.onion” TLD.
Tip: TLD or a Top-Level Domain, is the suffix of a domain name, the most well-known is “.com” but there are many more. “.onion” is used exclusively for onion services and is not understood by most browsers.
Onion services are another key part of Tor, these services are similar to websites, but you don’t connect to them by performing a DNS request to look up the server’s IP address. Instead, the browser queries a distributed database for connection details. These connection details do not include the IP address of the onion service meaning that the true identity of any onion service remains private.
Connecting to the Tor network uses a similar concept to VPNs. But there are so many differences that you can’t really call Tor a VPN. Tor makes no pretences about not being designed for usability or performance like a VPN would be. Tor is instead designed purely for as much privacy as possible.
A VPN and Tor can in fact complement each other. Using Tor is something that can be noticed by and blocked by your ISP or by system administrators. A VPN can help you bypass these restrictions by hiding the fact that you’re connecting to Tor. If you do use a VPN and Tor at the same time, remember to always connect to the VPN then Tor, not the other way around. This way your Tor traffic goes through the VPN, rather than your VPN traffic going through Tor.