Privacy has become one of the most valuable currencies across the globe. With digitization and globalization, it is challenging to maintain ownership over personal information. But it isn’t impossible. There are a handful of technologies that individuals and organizations can use to keep their identity and information private, hidden from prying eyes, exploitative entities, and bad actors.
Three of the most popular options for accomplishing this are Proxies, VPNs, and Tor. You don’t need all three, though. So how do you choose? The following breaks down each of them and dives into their strengths, weaknesses, and specific purposes to help you select the right one for your needs.
What is Tor?
An abbreviation of The Onion Router, Tor was originally designed in collaboration with the U.S. Navy. It was a global network of servers and allowed individuals to anonymously browse the internet. Since then, it has transformed into a non-profit that develops various privacy tools for the internet.
The primary service Tor offers is the Tor network. It provides privacy by:
- Disguising Tor user’s identity.
- Moving user’s traffic through various Tor servers.
- Making it difficult to trace traffic back to the user by using encryption.
- Showing a user’s traffic as divergent traffic from various Tor network nodes instead of a single computer.
- There is no setup necessary. All it takes is downloading the Tor browser.
- The service is free.
- Provides significant anonymity from advertisers, government, websites, and internet service providers.
- Allows users to get around censored or blocked websites.
- Enables users to host hidden websites that only Tor users can access.
- Due to all of the data relays, it makes browsing the internet very slow.
- The government and other agencies can identify who is using Tor, and these individuals can become targets for surveillance.
- While the Tor network is safe, skilled individuals and organizations can still hack into users’ Tor browsers, making web attacks possible (i.e., man in the middle attacks).
So, who is Tor NOT for?
- The average internet user will NOT benefit from Tor, mainly due to its snail-paced speeds.
- Individuals who are downloading large files while staying anonymous will NOT benefit from Tor. It does not create anonymity for those using services like BitTorrent and will often slow down other BitTorrent users’ traffic.
Then who is Tor useful for? It can provide essential anonymity for individuals like journalists in suppressive countries. It can also allow those living under censoring governments to access blocked websites. However, it does not by any means provide 100% security and anonymity.
What is a Proxy server?
A proxy server, or a proxy, is the best thought of like a gateway between the user and the internet. It is a barrier that stands between the user and the websites they are looking at. It acts as its IP address and can change or hide the user’s actual IP address from view. The key with proxy servers is that they are not all created equal; different ones offer different levels of privacy, security, and functionality.
While they may vary in their features and functions, they all operate by:
- Pulling internet traffic through the proxy server before it reaches the final requested address, as well as on the way back from the requested address to the user.
- Forwarding all website data to the user.
- Acting as a filter and firewall between the internet and the user.
- Speeding up common requests by caching data.
- Changing and hiding a user’s IP address.
- Encrypting data to maintain secure data transfers.
Who will benefit from a proxy’s services? Besides companies using them to control which websites employees can visit or improve bandwidth savings and speed, there are a few reasons for individuals to consider relying on a proxy. There are also several reasons individuals should be wary of proxy servers.
Proxy server Pros
- It changes the IP address of the user, as well as other personal, identifying information. This creates privacy.
- The encryption provides data security, and the server can hinder sites known to spread malware from gaining access to the user’s computer.
- The changed IP address gives users the ability to access blocked or censored websites.
Proxy server Cons
- Free proxy servers often have performance issues and do not provide adequate data security. In fact, some are outright dangerous.
- Some proxy servers save unencrypted information locally, such as the user’s actual IP address and their web browsing history. In some cases, they even sell this data.
- Some proxy servers do not offer encryption. Without this functionality, hackers or other prying eyes can collect information like usernames and passwords.
Who should NOT be using a proxy server?
- Anyone who wants to keep their IP address private from everyone—proxy providers know and store this information.
- Individuals who are looking for security. Even with SSL, hackers can easily bypass any encryption a proxy server offers.
- Those who don’t have significant knowledge of server configuration. For a proxy to be fully secure, the user usually needs to configure it for their needs.
In the end, proxy servers tend to be most useful to those skilled in IT as well as organizations that have a designated IT department. They are also most useful when they are paid services that have been thoroughly investigated.
What is VPN?
A virtual private network, or VPN, is a service, rather than a server or a browser. It gives users private and secure access to websites by:
- Hiding the user’s online actions.
- Rerouting the user’s connection through a specified server.
- Encrypting user data before it can be seen by the internet service provider or even reach the VPN server itself.
- Disguising the user’s IP address as the VPN server and its location.
- Provides access to blocked or censored websites.
- Allows access to Netflix/Hulu/etc. shows in different regions.
- Offers extra security when surfing the web by providing a stronger and safer connection and hindering hackers and other cyber threats.
- Can mask location, allowing users to gain access to cheaper plane tickets and hotel rooms.
- Helps individuals to avoid landing on an ISP’s watchlist for torrenting, which is critical for users who torrent legitimate content such as official Ubuntu downloads.
- Enables individuals to remotely connect to a private network.
- Free VPNs are extremely limited. They can be slow, offer minimal anonymity, and provide little to no security.
- Some VPNs cannot get pass certain website’s anti-VPN software (i.e. Netflix).
- Weaker VPNs can slow down the internet speed.
While there are a handful of cons, these can be eliminated by using a strong, paid VPN. The advantages of opting for this, even in combination with Tor or a proxy server, serve individuals in many different circumstances, including:
- Individuals who want to encrypt their activity on the internet, whether that be the data they are transferring or the websites they are visiting.
- Those who need to hide their location, allowing them to gain access to websites that their location or government hinders.
- Users who want or need anonymity while they are viewing websites or those who do not want their information in the hands of advertisers.
- People who are working remotely or need to use public WiFi—the VPN protects these connections.
In the end, Tor, proxy servers, and VPNs are all valuable technologies, especially when used together. Tor and proxy servers, though, should rarely be relied upon on their own, while VPNs can often provide the comprehensive privacy and security that individuals are seeking.
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