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You know the three types of security protocol, don’t you? Virtual private network (VPN), proxy, and Tor. The end. Wait…is that not enough info? Good news, we’ve got you covered. Better yet, you’re about to learn the differences between VPN, proxy and Tor, and just as important, why security is the necessity you didn’t know you needed.
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When it comes to your internet presence, ask yourself how important these concerns are to you:
You don’t want someone else to be able to connect to you directly.
You don’t want the content you send or receive to be readable by anyone else.
You don’t want the websites you connect with to be identifiable to observers.
You don’t want anyone (even the sites you connect to) to know where you physically are.
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, solutions like VPNs, proxies, and anonymizing networks like Tor can improve your digital security.
Let’s start with some reassurance: None of these are new. They are tried-and-tested techniques that help you block cyberspies from cyberspying on you.
A VPN provides access to a remote server. You log in, and voilá: While you may be physically located in the United States, your traffic might now be coming from an IP address in London, which means your IP address is cooler than you are.
From your computer’s perspective, a VPN looks like just another network interface. But a VPN, such as our own Avast Secureline VPN, gives you a distinct remote IP address that only your VPN uses.
You simply log in and choose the location from which you want to be seen as originating. With your company’s VPN, that remote address is inside their network. You can’t be seen on the internet, and no one can read your most recent status report.
With a VPN, you can protect yourself and your data from cybersnoopers, access geo-restricted sites like a boss, and bypass firewalls as if you had a ladder and a bucket of water.
If an outsider can see your network traffic, all they can determine is that you have a network connection to the VPN server. They can’t actually tell what you’re doing.
A proxy is a device that communicates with a server on your behalf. You connect to the proxy, which then forwards the connection onto the server — like that friend in high school passing your notes to a cutie in class, if your friend were IEEE-compliant.
When you use a local proxy, you connect to a local router, which makes the onward connection to the internet for you. The server sees the router’s IP address, not yours. Internet proxies are exactly the same, except that you connect to them across the internet. Like VPNs, they can shift your apparent location, though your connection to the proxy isn’t protected.
A local proxy hides your device from direct exposure to the internet, and an internet proxy can change where you appear to be. That makes it harder for anyone to pick out your traffic, especially if you’re using a heavily-trafficked proxy such as airport Wi-Fi. But that’s only on the other side. On the inside, lacking the protection of a VPN, you’re still exposed to other users.
There’s a moment during many a techno-spy movie where the hacker character says something like, “I’m bouncing the signal off of eight satellites to obscure the origin!” This is usually accompanied by a wireframe globe with a chain of lines animated around it to demonstrate the “bouncing.”
Tor is bit like this movie premise, in that it does bounce your traffic around to obscure its origin.
Tor (The Onion Router) is the software side of anonymity. When you download Tor to your device, you gain access to Tor’s nodes. You use Tor when you don’t want anyone to know where you are, including the services you’re using. It’s as close to one-click privacy as you can conveniently get.
The “Onion” in Tor’s name represents its design. When you use Tor, your data is stripped of identifying info, encrypted with layers, then relayed to another node. There, one of the layers on your data is decrypted, then it’s relayed again. When your data reaches its destination, it’s impossible to identify its origin (in internet terms) or your physical location.
Tor’s an essential tool for whistleblowers and activists, but it can also be used for evil. It’s often associated with the so-called darknet, which can only be accessed from a Tor node. It can’t be reached except by a system that obscures its true location, hence “dark.”
Tor is possibly the most effective method to keep your data secure on the internet. But what it has in security, it lacks in speed: Tor is comparatively slow.
No method can guarantee a cloak of invisibility to any internet user; it can, however, work as a minor spell of protection. And while you’re thinking of privacy concerns, don’t forget encryption. None shall pass — not without a team of dedicated hackers intent on finding you.
So which of these three methods — proxy, VPN, or Tor — is best at helping you protect your privacy?
That’s not the right question. The real question is: How much trouble do you want to go to?
Using a proxy is a simple solution for private web searches. But a proxy isn’t a good option if you need to securely communicate government or proprietary secrets (such as corporate intellectual property).
Tor is an effective solution, but it's not zippy. And speaking of speed…
Some of these options come at the price of speed. None of us have the patience to wait for internet connections, but adding technology takes extra time.
If you're casually browsing or sending an email message, a proxy should be fine for your needs. If you're streaming video, not so much. It’s likely to be slow and unreliable.
Tor relays your internet activities through a series of volunteer networks, which means a longer route from your cell phone/computer and your destination. It’s typically the slowest of all three options.
VPN speeds can vary, depending on the server load. But some VPN services clock in at download speeds of 23 Mbps and upload speeds of 4.93 Mbps. If speed is an issue for you, use a VPN service that's geographically close to you. And remember, you get what you pay for. If you want reliable service, be prepared to budget for it.
Proxies may be good at hiding your IP address, but they aren’t get-out-of-Big-Brother-free cards. They don’t encrypt your data or browsing habits, which means you’re not protected from anyone else on the same local network. Anyone can see you and your activities. That is why you might think twice about connecting to public Wi-Fi or hotspots offered by an airport, restaurant, or hotel. They’re also prone to dropping your connection.
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel for all your traffic and makes your real IP address invisible. VPNs are more stable than proxies and faster than Tor. But this comes at a cost: If you’re Philip K. Dick-level paranoid, you might not like the idea of anyone at a VPN company having access to your network habits. After all, the internet doesn’t know who you are, but the VPN service itself does. (Make sure you use a trusted VPN provider like Avast, a world leader in online security with over 400 million users.)
Tor networks are both secure and anonymous. But the NSA may take unwanted interest in you just because you are using a Tor node.
Proxies are simple to use, but they are basically only good for simple browsing where security isn’t particularly important. Whichever web browser you use, its settings offer proxy configuration options to specify a proxy. Once set, all requests from that browser — and only that browser — are routed through the proxy.
Tor is transparent, but of the three options, it’s the hardest to set up. Because you won’t have a user account, all you need to do is download Tor from the Tor Project and install it. Then, remember to use the Tor browser to start up the router software, and you’re good to go.
To use a VPN, you install the software — such as Avast Secureline VPN — on your local computer. Then, log in with a user ID and password. If it's a corporate VPN, chances are you already have credentials. Lastly, remember to start the VPN before you start making connections.
VPNs are the best all-around option. Although a VPN is slightly more complex than a proxy, it offers better protection. And while it doesn’t offer the security of a Tor network, it saves you time.
Don’t be concerned that you’re locked into 24/7 VPN use every time you turn on your computer. For casual browsing — sports scores, movie theater times — a VPN isn’t necessary. But when you fill out your company’s expense reports while working remotely, you’ll want the extra security that a VPN provides. Your company may insist on it, too.
No. You can't use both a VPN and a proxy at the same time.
One security method is good. It stands to reason that two methods of security are better. But in this case of using proxy and VPN together, this is sadly incorrect.
A PC VPN client overrides whatever proxy settings you might set; its whole job is handling your traffic, after all.
You might legitimately connect to a VPN through a proxy on an intranet, if that is how the local network is configured. But even though some networks can be set up this way, it’s rare.
Also, across the internet, it makes little sense: Using a proxy in front of a VPN means that the connection doesn't benefit from the VPN’s added security benefits.
You could connect to a proxy from a VPN if the VPN is being blocked, or if it doesn't have an endpoint in the geographic location you need. You're only as good as your own encryption beyond the end of the VPN, as the VPN doesn’t protect that part of the connection.
Tor is a method of relays designed to encrypt and pass your traffic across the internet. A proxy provides your IP server’s address rather than your own, a sleight of hand that obfuscates your online activities. They can be used together, but does it make you more secure? It depends.
Using Tor to connect to a proxy might be useful if you don't want the other end of the connection to know you're using Tor (or if the other end is blocking Tor). But while you could use a proxy to connect to Tor, you’re actually less secure than you’d be with Tor directly, as your connection between you and the internet proxy is not protected. And, as with using Tor as a standalone security method, your connection will be slower.
If you want to use Tor, and your local ISP is blocking connections to Tor, well, this is where a VPN comes in handy.
Helpful hint: If you want to pair a proxy with Tor, use the “Configure” menu in your Tor browser to authenticate your proxy server.
With the VPN’s ease of use and Tor’s nigh-invulnerability, you can use both together for double encryption. This one-two punch should leave bad actors in the dust of your internet trail, but it doesn’t mean we recommend it.
While Tor provides your data with multiple layers of encryption and route-obfuscated protection, the catch comes at the exit node — where your data leaves Tor and makes its way to the final destination. By Tor’s design, you don’t know who or where the exit node is any more than it knows who you are. Perhaps it’s safe...but perhaps it’s operated by a bad actor attempting to inspect your connection. By also using a VPN, you can protect your data: the data entering Tor is encrypted, and it’s still encrypted when it leaves.
The VPN allows you to connect to Tor without it being obvious you’re using Tor, while also concealing your original IP address.
Just don’t expect your internet connection to be fast.
Helpful hint: If you want to use both together, download Tor first, then install a VPN. But start your VPN first, then launch your Tor browser second.
Now that you’ve read about the three most common methods to secure your internet activities, you may have come to the conclusion that the VPN is superior when it comes to ease of use, security, and speed.
Protecting over 400 million people worldwide, Avast has the experience and expertise to help you maintain a low profile in a public digital space. Let Avast’s SecureLine VPN give you a much-needed cloak to disguise you from the internet’s prying eyes.