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Three of the best privacy tools used to strengthen online security are virtual private networks (VPNs), proxies, and Tor. Keep reading to learn the differences between Tor, VPNs, and a proxy server, and find out how to compare a proxy vs VPN. Then, encrypt all your traffic with the fast, secure, and private connection provided by an industry-leading VPN.
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From your computer’s perspective, a VPN looks like just another network interface. But a VPN service, such as Avast Secureline VPN, gives you a distinct remote IP address that only your VPN uses. All you have to do is open up your VPN app of choice and choose the location from which you want to appear.
If an outsider can see your network traffic, all they can determine is that you have a network connection to a VPN server — they can’t actually tell what you’re doing. That means you can get around content restrictions, avoid censorship, prevent hackers or advertisers tracking you online, and hide all your browsing activity — even from your ISP.
A VPN provides a secure, encrypted connection for your internet traffic.
A proxy is a device that communicates with a server on your behalf. You first connect to the proxy server, which then forwards your connection onto the server of the web site you’re visiting. A so-called reverse proxy works the same way, but the other way around, handling internet traffic on behalf of a server.
When you use a local proxy, you connect to a local router, which makes the 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 alter your apparent location, though your connection to the proxy isn’t encrypted.
Online proxies act as intermediaries, forwarding your internet traffic to the sites you visit.
A local proxy means your device isn’t directly exposed or connected to the internet, because the proxy acts as an intermediary. An internet proxy can change the location that you appear to be in, which makes it harder for anyone to identify your data, especially if you’re using a heavily-trafficked proxy.
But that’s only from the outside. On the inside, because proxies lack the encryption provided by VPNs, your internet traffic is still vulnerable to interception and surveillance.
Tor (The Onion Router) is a software tool that routes your web traffic through a series of networks or relay nodes. By concealing the point of origin or your internet connection, Tor provides a level of privacy that helps journalists, whistleblowers, and others browse the web anonymously.
The “Onion” reference in Tor’s name reflects its layered design. When you use Tor, your data is stripped of identifying info, buried under layers of encryption, and then relayed to another node. There, one of the layers on your data is decrypted, before being relayed to yet another node where the process repeats. When your data reaches its destination, it’s impossible to identify its origin (in internet terms) or your physical location.
Traffic through the Tor browser passes through many layers of encryption.
While Tor’s an essential tool for those seeking protection from government censors or other forms of surveillance, it can also be used for nefarious purposes. It’s often associated with the so-called darkweb, which is the part of the web that can be accessed only by special software (like Tor) that obscures the true location of web traffic. That’s why it’s called the dark web.
Tor’s complex network of nodes and multiple layers of encryption and decryption is highly effective at securing your internet data. But all that privacy protection comes at the cost of speed. Even a simple search engine request can take several seconds to process, which can feel like an eternity in normal web browsing.
Tor is not a VPN, but it does have some of the same functionalities and benefits of a VPN — namely strong encryption that hides your location, identity, and online activity. But rather than establishing a virtual private network that channels your data via an encrypted tunnel, Tor obscures internet traffic by routing it through nodes in the Onion overlay network.
Although Tor is notoriously slow and doesn’t provide truly end-to-end encryption like a VPN, it does let you access dark web websites as well as services such as dark web search engines and dark web markets.
No method can guarantee absolute anonymity or complete protection against hackers. But to understand which of the three methods — proxy, VPN, or Tor — is best at helping you protect your privacy, you need to know what your internet priorities are and how much effort you want to exert to realize them.
For example, using a proxy is a simple solution for concealing your location, but it’s not a great way to securely communicate sensitive information. Compared to a proxy, Tor and VPNs offer much more privacy, but they are also a bit slower than proxies. And in the VPN vs proxy debate, only a VPN will encrypt your connection.
Here’s a table that compares some of the main features of a proxy vs a VPN:
When comparing the speed of a VPN, proxy, or Tor, Tor is generally the slowest, because traffic passes through so many different nodes. And VPNs are generally slower than proxies, because the encryption protocols of VPNs slow down connection speeds. So if you’re looking to speed up your PC or simply want to bypass geo-blocking, you may not need a VPN or Tor.
For casual browsing or changing the location of your IP, a proxy should be fine. But if you're streaming video, proxies are often slow and unreliable, and there’s no way to speed up your internet connection via a proxy.
Tor works by relaying your internet traffic through a complex series of volunteer networks, which means each data packet takes a much longer route from your device to its destination (and vice versa). While Tor offers several privacy advantages, speed isn’t one of them — it’s typically the slowest of all three options.
VPN speeds vary, depending on the server load and other factors. But some VPN services offer very fast download and upload speeds. And it’s also possible to speed up your VPN connection by selecting an optimal VPN server location (such as one that’s geographically near).
Proxies are good at hiding your IP address, but they don’t encrypt your data or obscure your browsing habits, which means you’re not protected from anyone else on the same local network. So if you’re connecting to public Wi-Fi and want strong security and privacy, you’ll need a VPN.
The main advantage of Tor vs VPNs is that Tor lets you avoid government censors and access the dark web, which can be powerful security benefits depending on what you do and where you are. And the layers of encryption Tor offers provide strong levels of privacy and anonymity.
VPNs are more private and stable than proxies and faster than Tor. And the encrypted tunnel that VPN traffic passes through means your data and communications are secure from prying eyes, like snoops or your ISP. With a VPN, only you and your VPN service provider can see what you're up to.
Tor networks, like VPNs, are also highly secure and anonymous. But your internet traffic is still theoretically vulnerable to interception at both the input and output nodes, and using Tor may mean that the NSA takes a more active interest in your browsing behavior.
If you want a convenient way to change your location online, proxies are simple to use and don’t require additional software installation. But while they’re convenient, proxies are not nearly as secure as VPNs or Tor. Whichever web browser you use, its settings offer proxy configuration options. Once set, all requests from that browser — and only that browser — are routed through the proxy.
Tor isn’t particularly difficult to set up — you just need to download and install Tor. But it’s slow and laggy to browse on, not particularly user friendly, and isn’t easy to navigate unless you know where you’re going.
To use a VPN, you first need to install the software — such as Avast Secureline VPN — on your device. Then, to set up your VPN, log in with a user ID and password and activate the VPN connection before you start browsing.
VPNs are the best all-around option. Using a VPN may require a couple more steps than using a proxy, but it offers far more privacy. And while VPNs may not offer the total anonymity of Tor, or let you access the dark web, they’re easier to use and offer a powerful level of encryption.
You don’t necessarily need to turn on your VPN every time you use your computer. For casual browsing, a VPN isn’t necessary. But when you fill out your company’s expense reports while working remotely, or are dealing with highly sensitive data, you’ll want the extra security of a VPN.
The benefits of using a proxy vs VPN vs Tor vary, depending on what you’re doing online and the level of privacy and security you need. If you're a casual browser who happens to be security-minded, then a proxy server or a VPN is likely enough.
Proxies are good for general browsing and changing your location to access content that may be blocked in your region (especially if total privacy isn’t your top concern). VPNs are better if you’re sending sensitive information and need to encrypt your data. VPNs also mask your IP address, which can help you avoid surveillance.
Tor is most useful if you want to delve into the darknet, or if you want to add layers of security and anonymity to your browsing. Most web users don’t need Tor, but if you want to make your traffic untraceable, then you should consider using Tor.
Ask yourself how important the following questions are to you:
Do you want someone else to be able to connect to you directly?
Do you want the content you send or receive to be readable by anyone else?
Do you want other people to be able to see which websites you visit?
Do you want anyone (even the sites you connect to) to know where you physically are?
If any of those statements apply to you, solutions like VPNs, proxies, and anonymizing networks like Tor will improve your digital security and give you greater peace of mind.
No, you can't use both a VPN and proxy at the same time. A PC VPN client overrides whatever proxy settings you might have set up. After all, the purpose of a VPN is to handle and redirect all your web traffic.
So, while you might legitimately connect to a VPN through a proxy on an intranet — if that’s how the local network is configured — it makes little sense. Using a proxy in front of a VPN means that the connection doesn't take advantage of the VPN’s added security benefits.
You could also connect to a proxy from a VPN if the VPN is blocked, or if it doesn't have an endpoint in the geographic location you need. But the protection offered by encryption stops as soon as your internet traffic exits the VPN, so pairing a VPN with a proxy simply weakens your security.
Tor is a method of relays designed to encrypt and pass traffic across the internet. A proxy assigns you your IP server’s address rather than your own, a sleight of hand that obfuscates your online activities. They can be paired using the “Configure” menu in your Tor browser to authenticate your proxy server, but it’s unclear how much additional security that setup provides.
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 connecting with Tor directly, because the connection between you and the internet proxy is not protected. And adding a proxy to Tor will make your internet connection even slower.
If you want to use Tor, but your local ISP is blocking connections to it, that’s where having a VPN comes in handy.
Yes, using a VPN and Tor together is called Tor-over-VPN, and it can strengthen your security by adding an additional layer of encryption to your connection. If privacy is your main priority, then Tor-over-VPN is the best privacy setup for you.
While Tor provides your data with multiple layers of encryption, when your data leaves Tor and goes to its final destination the data packets are decrypted, which makes them vulnerable to interception.
Pairing a VPN with Tor gives you end-to-end encryption — the data entering Tor is encrypted, and it’s still encrypted when it leaves the Tor network. And using a VPN lets you connect to Tor without it being obvious that you’re using Tor (and your real IP will still be hidden).
To use both Tor and a VPN, download Tor first, then install a VPN. Then, before you start your browsing session, turn on your VPN before you launch Tor browser. Just note that all this security may make your internet connection very slow.
Tor-over-VPN offers powerful security and layers of encryption.
For most of us, a VPN is the most convenient way to get a secure, private, and encrypted internet connection. Protecting more than 400 million people worldwide, Avast has the experience and expertise to help secure your digital life. Install Avast SecureLine VPN and start browsing the web securely and privately today.