For those looking to use the Internet anonymously, there are several options. But, the most reliable and commonly used ones are VPNs and Tor (which stands for The Onion Router).
By hiding your real IP address, both options ensure nobody can easily track your online activities. With your IP address hidden, so is your physical location. Both services also let you get around geo-restrictions and censorship, opening up areas of the Internet that would otherwise be unavailable to you.
How Do VPNs Work
Using a VPN keeps your safe and anonymous by encrypting your traffic and hiding your IP address. To use a virtual private network, you first connect to a server. That server will do the talking to the Internet on your behalf.
Once you have established a VPN server connection, any website you visit will only see its IP address, not yours. Additionally, all data transmitted between your device and the server is encrypted. This means no ISP, government organization or hacker can view your activity or steal your information.
All your ISP will see is that you have established an encrypted connection to a VPN server. But, because VPNs are very commonly used by employees to use their company networks remotely, ISPs do not block them.
How Does Tor Work
The primary goal of Tor is anonymization. It’s designed to ensure your privacy online and to make it tough for anyone to be able to figure out your activities. Tor is available for free.
Tor stands for The Onion Router because it has many layers, kind of like the skin of an onion. After internet traffic leaves your device and before it reaches its final destination, it is routed randomly through a massive network of Tor relays. These relays are spread around the world and are run by volunteers.
Your data is also encrypted. In fact, it is re-encrypted multiple times as it passes through the Tor network and until it reached the last node (known as the exit node). From the exit node, your transmission is sent unencrypted to the final destination. But by then, it is impossible for anyone to know who the original sender is.
When it comes to traffic traceability, each node in the relay can only see the IP address of the nodes directly before and after it. So, nobody has visibility into the entire path your transmission takes from when it leaves your device until it reaches its destination.
Each path also expires after 10 minutes. Once it does, a brand new one is randomly generated and used. Whenever you connect to a new website, a different new path is also created.
When all is said and done, your ISP has no way of finding out which sites you frequent. The sites you visit also don’t know who you are since all they can see is the IP address of the last relay computer in the Tor network.
Tor can be downloaded from Tor Project. The video below shows how to install and use it.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Both Tor and VPNs can be used to side step geo-blocking and censorship and to maintain your online privacy. As with most things, there are benefits and cons to using either.
Advantages of a VPN
- The connection speed will be much quicker that it will with Tor. With a VPN, there is only one server between you and your data’s destination, compared to several with Tor.
- A VPN service will provide better privacy and security over Tor.
- VPN client software often includes malware protection.
Disadvantages of a VPN
- Good VPN services are not free. They cost in the range of $30 to $90 per year, depending on which provider you choose. There are free alternatives, but they are ad driven and not considered as secure or private.
Advantages of Tor
- Nobody will be able to make a connection between the sites you visit and your device’s IP address.
- The Tor network is widespread and run by volunteers, making it tough to shut down.
Disadvantages of Tor
- Because of the number of relay nodes your data travels through, connections are typically quite slow. Therefore, Tor is not suitable for data-intensive activities like streaming video.
- It’s somewhat easy for ISPs and governments to find and block Tor relays, making it sometimes harder to establish a connection.
- Anyone can set up a Tor node, including government and law enforcement organizations. If they create enough such nodes, they may be able to start piecing together your online activity.
A good VPN is what gets our vote. Tor is a good enough solution if all you intend to do is to surf the web anonymously. But, if you’re interested in streaming video or downloading large files, a VPN is the clear winner. A VPN will also ultimately give you better privacy, security and help protect you from malware.