Now there is this thing called ‘Tor’ which for all intents and purposes apart from giving you access to the so-called dark web also helps mask a user’s IP address by bouncing traffic off a dozen or so other computers. While the concept behind it is pretty sound and it has been used for over a decade by everyone from child pornographers to pedophiles and whistleblowers the fact is that they can be used by regular people too.
Compared to a premium VPN service its 100% free, open source and the mechanics behind it sound pretty darn solid. However, not everything is as it seems because literally dozens of so-called pornographers and pedophiles in addition to government leakers get caught. How exactly do these people get caught if Tor is so secure? That’s the question we’ve set out to answer and see how it holds up against premium VPN services.
Making Tor insanely simple to understand
As someone who has personally used Tor, I tried to find out how it worked. What I ran into were articles written by some highly intelligent people which took me a week to understand. I’m an average IQ guy like a lot of you reading this piece trying to figure out if Tor is worth using. So, before I go, any further let’s start by explaining how all of this works. This will help you get a good idea of just how secure the Tor network is and apparently I’ve made it very simple!
Tor is short for ‘The Onion Router’, it was developed by none other than the US Navy as a way to encrypt and send information using multiple layers. What that means is that every bit of information that you send passes through an array of nodes which is just a fancy way of saying computers that are connected to the Tor network. Each time your data passes through this node, it is encrypted and then later re-encrypted until it reaches its final destination. Each node is run by a volunteer, so obviously, the more volunteers, the more secure the transmission will be.
Tor’s security also stems from the fact that almost nobody knows what route the traffic will take. Though it does know who is connected to them, and who is going to join, still the entire path is unknown which renders the website you’re trying to access also an unknown variable to all the nodes.
But there is a problem…the biggest issue with Tor is trying to find the right exit node. Exit nodes can be attacked and so your data is as secure as the exit node chosen. Thus, illegal stuff passed through the exit node like child porn can be tracked via its IP address which is pretty easy to find out.
Want to know how the FBI ends up tracking down hackers, crackers, websites selling illegal stuff? Well, they hijack and watch all the traffic passing through the exit node. It’s just that simple apparently.
Pros of using Tor
- Secure and makes it easy to stay anonymous over the internet.
- Encrypts all the data that passes through it using multiple layers.
- It’s hard to shut down a Tor network so its pretty stable.
- Most of all its free!
- The kicker is Tor’s exit node. Many governments like those of China, for instance, have blocked these exit nodes, and ones that are open are monitored. So, it kind of sucks to be in China and want to buy marijuana online.
- The Tor system in general is very slow because your data has to bounce through a multitude of nodes. Also, the more nodes located in different countries off which your data bounces, the slower things are going to be.
- It’s not practical for use with torrents and P2P file-sharing
- Even though Tor does help you access geo-restricted content it a very bad experience owing to the sluggish speed. So, you can’t use it for streaming Netflix.
Premium VPN Services
While many people including myself once assumed that VPNs and Tor are one in the same thing, the fact is that they are not. They may help you achieve the same thing, i.e. mask your location, access geo-restricted websites and perhaps keep you anonymous online but that’s where the similarities end. VPN or Virtual Private Network as the name implies creates an encrypted tunnel so to speak which connects your computer to an external server also called a VPN server.
Being able to create a secure server means that even your ISP can’t see what the heck you’re doing. Plus, the information that’s sent to and from via the tunnel is 100% encrypted which means hackers, phishers, the FBI, CIA don’t know what’s being sent or received. Plus, unlike Tor, you can still use a VPN to access Netflix and other forms of geo-restricted content.
The key to staying anonymous using a VPN service as I learned the hard way was to choose a reliable VPN service provider. The barrier to entry into this industry is so low that many have jumped the gun and gotten into it. So even if you end up paying $10 a month, your connection may still suck if the service is using a slow server in a third world country. Plus there is always the chance that they are making extra money on the side by selling your personal information.
There is also the fact that not all VPN services are secure, though the premium ones are. The majority of VPN service providers tend to maintain logs of your activity. So, don’t be surprised if that one bag of marijuana (insert anything illegal here) you paid for with bitcoin brings the DEA to your doorstep.
Major Advantages of a VPN Service
- Blazing fast performance. Yes, your internet speeds do take a hit when using a VPN but if you’re using a premium service its merely a 10-15% hit.
- VPNs also happen to be great for P2P file sharing and using torrents. Some providers even optimize their servers for this type of thing.
- All traffic is secure and encrypted, so there is no question of hackers intercepting it.
- Premium VPN services have servers around the world making it perfect for bypassing geo-restricted websites.
- The software associated with a premium VPN service is straightforward to use and can just as easily be used on a mobile device as well as on a computer.
- It’s not free. But anything that’s worth something is never free.
- Some VPN service providers log your activities. If you want to avoid that then always use a premium service.
- VPN services operating in countries with strict data retention laws will willingly give your data to the government. So, make sure you know where the service is based before pulling out your credit card.
Unless you’re broke or have no other choice, I’d never recommend that you use Tor to protect your identity online. Its just not secure enough for the reasons stated above. However, premium VPN services will cost you money, which on average is around $5-$10 bucks a month. That’s not much when you weigh in the fact that you’re protected online. The only thing you’d want to watch out for is to get a service that does not collect and share your online activity.
I’d rather trust a service that charges me, and I can hold accountable as compared to using Tor which has an easily exploitable vulnerability. As a matter of fact, its constantly being exploited to find people by government employed hackers. Though the only reason why you may want to use Tor is to either access the shady underground marketplace called the ‘dark web’ or develop your own either way it’s going to get you into trouble.