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Tor and VPN: How well do they mix?

Tor and VPN: How well do they mix?


It obviously goes without saying that people are striving for better levels of online privacy these days. There are a number of reasons for this, including government monitoring, credit bureau insecurity, curious ISPs, and sites pulling every trick in your browser’s fingerprint book to track you across the web.

Whatever your reason for wanting better online privacy, when it comes to this endeavour, one of the questions that might come to your mind is whether you should use both a VPN and Tor service together. For the “belt and suspender” audience who likes this layered privacy approach, let’s take a look at how this pairing plays together.

How safe is it safe?

A VPN service is a way to encrypt all traffic between the client, then to the VPN server, and on the Internet. This is done via an encrypted tunnel, which keeps the user’s public IP address hidden, and network traffic private. Modern protocols perform encryption at 256 bits, which is secure enough to be considered “top secret” for government use.

However, even with the VPN properly configured, and the service performing well, nothing is 100% secure, and there can still be data leaks, as unencrypted data is transmitted – including IP leaks, DNS leaks. In other features, we recommended some methods to mitigate the VPN failure issue, including running an IP leak test, and using a VPN kill switch. However, despite best efforts, there are still concerns about being affected by this type of leak when using a VPN.

(Image credit: Tor)

Enter Tor

Tor Browser is a tool designed to make the user anonymous online, does not use VPN technology, and therefore does not encrypt data. The name Tor is an acronym for “The Onion Router,” a specialized browser that sends user data through multiple anonymous servers. When you do this, it becomes more difficult to determine what the user is doing online.

Users may wonder how effective Tor is, although a good starting point here is the realization that it originally came from research done at a US research lab in the 1990s for US intelligence to use – with the obvious need for secure online communications.

It was later released under a free public license. This solution is used for a variety of purposes, including the US government looking to avoid revealing its IP address when searching foreign websites. It has also been used for nefarious purposes, and Tor has gained some notoriety as a gateway to accessing the “dark web,” the part of the Internet not indexed by search engines, and linked to illicit activity.

While Tor is definitely a powerful tool, you’ll see it right on the homepage, there is a disclaimer that Tor does not completely anonymize the user while browsing the web. As Tor traffic bounces through random nodes, it eventually exits to the Internet via what’s called an “exit node”. These exit nodes can be compromised, or the exit node may be monitored by the owner, thus exposing user data.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)


Since neither VPN nor Tor is 100% effective as exactly one solution, this raises the question of whether both will run simultaneously, giving the user a double layer of privacy coverage. However, this multi-layered composition is not without controversy. There are certainly arguments about whether Tor and VPN should be used simultaneously, and on top of that, there is disagreement about the best way to implement this.

The first way to combine them is called “Tor over VPN”. In this configuration, the user first connects to their VPN server, and then uses the Tor Browser. The advantages include the fact that the use of Tor is hidden by VPN encryption. In addition, your IP address is not revealed in the Tor entry node, because it sees the IP address of the VPN server. The downsides include that the VPN provider is able to see your IP address, and also, there is no protection from hacked Tor exit nodes.

The alternative way to use these services is known as β€œVPN over Tor”. In this case, the computer is first connected to the VPN, and the encrypted tunnel is created. Then, the traffic goes through the Tor browser, and after the Tor exit node, the still encrypted data is transmitted to the VPN server, and then to the Internet.

The plus point in this scheme of things is that the data that appears from the Tor exit node is still encrypted from the VPN, so it is safe from any potentially malicious nodes.

An added advantage is that the VPN does not see the user’s IP address, as it is mixed through Tor, so combined with an anonymous payment system (some VPNs accept cryptocurrency, for example), it offers the user another level of privacy – because even if you keep The VPN logs, it won’t have the real IP address to hand over to anyone.

Finally, the user can also choose the server location that the VPN is using, which can be useful to bypass geo-blocking issues.

Although the VPN over Tor method is generally considered anonymous, it is also more difficult to configure. Furthermore, it allows the ISP to know what the user is communicating with through Tor, and does not allow access to “.onion” sites.

The additional problem with VPN over Tor is that this method requires a VPN service to provide support for it, but the truth is that the majority of VPNs do not currently do this. This is because the VPN needs access to Tor Control for the configuration to work.

(Image credit: AirVPN)

One of the best known VPN for Tor solutions comes from AirVPN. When TechRadar Pro reviewed this service, we found a lot to like, including the set of advanced features it offered, and support for Tor Browser already.

Other VPN providers have also integrated Tor Browser into their service. For example, ExpressVPN has a “.onion” version of their website to allow users to create an anonymous account. NordVPN actually encourages the use of Tor with its service, for “maximum online security and privacy,” which is achieved by connecting to an “Onion over VPN” server.

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