A question pondered by many, “What is the real difference between a Proxy service, a VPN, and Tor”? How they are alike and what are the pros and cons of each? Many long term VPN users do not realize that Tor is great at complete anonymity compared to proxy and VPN combined. However, a proxy service also conceals a user identity, albeit employing a different method. So while you’re deciding between optimal performance speeds, security and privacy- which service reigns supreme?
The Tor network, a VPN service, and a proxy are used to offer an enhanced online experience, and since their routes and methods are different, the outcomes will also be different. Let’s explore these three options in more detail…
1. What is a Proxy Service?
With the use of a proxy service, your traffic is directed via another computer instead of your own. In essence, the open proxy is a server that intermediates the traffic between your computer and its ultimate destination on the internet. Therefore, any internet traffic routed through the proxy server won’t reveal the identity of your computer’s IP, but rather will appear to come from the IP of the proxy server itself. This allows the user to surf the web, providing the user with more privacy than simply connecting directly to the internet through their ISP’s network.
There are various proxy services available, and the user would have to decide between a paid and a free proxy service. However, proxy services, especially the free ones, don’t necessarily encrypt all the traffic that flows through them, allowing them to direct a great number of connections from many users-usually in the thousands.
What is their use?
They are used for a number of reasons. Since they essentially serve as an intermediary between your home computer and the internet, they can be used to by-pass restricted web-content. They are also able to provide the ability to bypass location restrictions, and to provide a relative degree of anonymity when browsing online. Their protocols are either HTTP or SOCKS.
Pros and Cons of a Proxy Service
HTTP protocols interpret traffic that starts with http:// or https://, for webpages. This makes it very limited for use by websites. SOCKS proxy servers, on the other hand, are able to handle more traffic than HTTP, but are also slower than HTTP. The SOCKS protocol will also support any kind of internet traffic, including SMTP (used for emails), FTP for files uploading to websites, and torrents. The latest in SOCKS is SOCKS5. It is noteworthy that both protocols have the same security issues.
- They’re relatively cheap and frequently offered for free.
- Allow IPs to be hidden, so can be used to bypass geo-restricted sites around the world.
- Browser friendly.
- Primarily useful for gaining access to websites that are restricted.
- HTTP is not secured/encrypted so won’t hinder mass government surveillance
- IP of the HTTP can still be logged
- SSL encryption is not 256, but rather 128 bit length.
- Web browsers have to be configured individually to utilize the proxy service.
Should you use Public Proxy Servers?
Public proxy servers don’t offer the same reliability and stability as paid proxy servers. If anything is offered for free to a massive global audience, the quality factor is going to suffer. In this case, the public proxy servers are unstable. They might turn on and off without user control, and also offer varying speeds. If you’re transferring sensitive information, keep in mind that the anonymous servers might not be able to protect that data, as public proxy servers just don’t have the resources to invest in heavy encryption.
What are Web Proxies?
These proxy services do not require the user to install or download any software, nor is there any configuration of browser settings required. Web proxy services are also often offered for free. They allow the user to surf the web with relative anonymity. The downside to this is that many known web proxy IP addresses are blocked by some high demand websites, as they are known by a large user base. If they are easy to use and accessible, the practicality of the service might be somewhat limited.
Final Word: Proxies aren’t meant to protect your entire device, and certainly not all of the internet traffic generated by a user. Rather, they usually only protect the browser and have to be configured for each separate application, such as email, browsing, and use of other Apps. On the other hand, some applications are not supported by proxies. In deciding between free or paid proxies, it would depend on the needs of the user. Although, generally paid proxy services are considered to offer greater security and reliability, with a faster performance.
2. The Tor Network: “The Onion”
Tor is a service created by people to anonymously browse the internet. The threats of mass surveillance by giant governmental institution means that the Tor network was designed to completely hide the true identity of the user while online, allowing no one to hack the user’s online activity. Tor is designed for anonymity in its basic structure; the nodes, from start to exit, are also voluntarily run by like- minded individuals who value the privacy and anonymity of the user’s online experience.
The TOR network randomly select servers around the world and is considered to be the truly “anonymous” network by hackers and experts alike.
The “Onion” has Multiple Layers of Encryption
The Tor network is also known as “The Onion Router”, referring to the way data encryption is layered like an onion for added anonymity and privacy against mass surveillance activities. The use of a Tor network means that the encryption of data is secured through multiple layers, three at the very least. The Tor network is made of various nodes that bounce your web connection, essentially aiding in keeping the user’s IP address hidden from various sites, hence losing the trail of the original IP.
How does Tor work?
- Tor network nodes are run by volunteers around the world. The greater the number of volunteers, the greater the node to node security.
- Tor network nodes are randomly placed around the world.
- The Tor network relay circuits reset every 10 minutes or so randomly, so your earlier actions cannot be linked to your current ones.
- Exit nodes, the last nodes in the chain, before connecting to the desired website, are unencrypted. (This has its own security issues, but the user should be aware of this anomaly)
- The data is encrypted and re-encrypted various times, and every time it passes a node.
- The nodes are prevented from truly knowing the whole path a computer takes to reach its final destination.
- The nodes only know the IP address of the node in front and behind of them, not the whole path of the user’s connection between the PC and intended destination (website).
Drawbacks of the TOR Network
The network has its foundation based on volunteers run nodes, making it highly decentralized in service delivery. Users should be aware that exit nodes will not encrypt data leaving the node to its ultimate destination- the website.
A significant drawback associated with TOR is that it can be slow. The compromise in speed is due to the fact that the router is going through at least 3 nodes around in the world, re-encrypting each time. This also requires greater use of processing power from each node to node, resulting in a slower performance overall.
As a result, TOR is not recommended nor is it feasible for P2P file sharing. The network design of Tor is secure, and does a successful job of protecting the user’s anonymity, but it is slower in performance compared to other tools. However, if the user has a broadband connection, the slowdown in speed might not be as noticeable. Viewing streaming content by circumventing geo-restricted content is next to impossible because of slower speeds.
Torrent over TOR
Torrenting over Tor is also not recommended. This is because it will result in a massive slowdown for all users of the TOR network. Their infrastructure is simply not built for streaming.
Final Word: Tor is unmatched in the level of anonymity offered. It is a very secure system, and the prevailing advantage is the true level of “anonymity” for the user. If you are identified, it is probably because of misuse or careless use of the system. True “anonymity” for any of the methods discussed here is hard to achieve, regardless of the processes involved. The Tor network, however, has achieved the trust of the tech community, and is resilient and proven to be secure by even the well-funded attacks. Take Snowden’s word for it, not just ours.
3. VPN Services: How do they Measure Up?
VPNs are more common for commercial use, costing anywhere from $5 to $10 a month, and accessible through multiple devices, with a great number of servers located strategically around the world. They are the choice tools for some, depending on user needs, and also offer other additional add-on features, such as anti-phishing, malware protection, among others.
Virtual Private Network (VPN) providers create a “private network” that is basically an encrypted tunnel, securing any data that passes through it from the originator to its ultimate destination. All of your internet traffic or activity is set up to be going through the server of the VPN, instead of the internet service provider. Essentially, your ISP would not be able to trace any of the user’s online activity; all that would be visible is the IP of the VPN service.
A VPN also allows the user to bypass geo-restrictions by creating secured connections through a choice of server locations around the world, to another place. This allows the user to appear to be located at another location. Also, they offer is added security and privacy through their secured tunnel. However, the VPN service would be aware of the user’s activities online, depending on their “logging” policy.
- Logging Policy- the presence or absence of the VPN provider’s logging policy will determine the true amount of privacy and security offered. Remember, data logs of user activity can be compelled by the government to be used to spy on you.
- The cost of a typical VPN is generally between $5 to $10 a month, a pricier option for equal, or in some cases- lesser amount of privacy and anonymity offered by Tor.
- Even though you are using a VPN service, the VPN provider still has access of “usage” and “connection” data; in essence, they can see your online activity when the ISP can’t.
Advantages of a VPN Service:
- Location spoofing, keeping your true location hidden so that the user can bypass geo-restrictions.
- Commercial, paid VPN services are fast. The lag time is barely noticeable. There is a slowdown, but depending on the location of the server, and the number of hops, the service itself is very fast.
- Ideal for P2P file sharing.
- The VPN rarely comes all by itself; usually the service package has a bunch of additional add-on features, such as protection against SPAM, and even malware protection. Here’s a list of some defining features of a VPN service.
Defining Features of VPN Services include:
- User specific secured accounts
- P2P Support
- PPTP, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec
- Multiple Device Connectivity (cell phone device and PC/Laptop, etc.)
- Multiple VPN gateways
- Unlimited Bandwidth and Data Transfer
- Blocking of Ads, trackers, and malware
- Instant setup and easier to use
Proxy vs. Tor vs. VPN: The Conclusion
Depending on your use and required speeds of performance, a VPN and a Proxy are ideal for watching TV shows and movies online. Remember, evading geographic restriction or mild censorship does not mean that the service also offers privacy or anonymity. Additionally, true anonymity is also not guaranteed in any of these tools. Even while using a Tor, which is designed with anonymity in mind, a user can give away clues through behavior patterns, unguarded comments made online, and cookies.
TOR is specifically designed with anonymity in mind. However, two or more of these services can be used with each other, for added security and privacy. Keep in mind that the Tor network’s random selection of nodes or servers throughout the world may significantly affect the connection speed. It is also vital that the user should use a VPN service if they wish to keep their data transmission secured throughout the whole process. This level of encryption throughout can only be achieved through a VPN. However, it is imperative to understand that if a VPN service offers a true “No logging” policy, the user’s internet activity is truly private. Also, a Tor will work on multiple applications- basically anywhere there is internet access-while a proxy is completely browser based.
Considering all the information in this article, a VPN through Tor is considered the “golden child” of any security arrangement, with the right amount of safety and encryption, followed by anonymity of web-browsing. Even if you have to spend a few dollars more, the additional cost would be worth it. There are several options for the best VPN services, and you can browse their Reviews and use this Comparison Tool before making a selection.