Tor over VPN: Is it useful if you’re not a whistleblower?

what is tor over vpn

When privacy is an absolute must, the standard methods to shake off surveillance might just not cut it. Using a VPN is, in itself, a pretty secure method to stay anonymous on the web. So is using the Tor network, which also directs your connection through several random nodes to make it impossible to trace the connection back to you. However, these two methods can also be combined, which is known as Tor over VPN (or Onion over VPN). Here’s what you should know about it.

Tor and VPN

It’s impossible to explain how Onion over VPN works without touching how each component works separately. Many people who are looking for anonymity indeed usually use just one of them. As with everything, there are benefits as well as drawbacks.

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a virtual private network, a technology to route your connection through an intermediary server. The connection between your device and the server is encrypted, making your connection impossible to intercept from the outside. It also disguises your real IP address with that of a VPN server.

You can set up a VPN server yourself or buy a subscription from a VPN service provider. The latter allows you to connect to large server fleets with the possibility to pick almost any country in the world. Thus, disguising your IP and making it seem as if you’re connecting from a different country.

What is Tor?

Tor is (or used to be) an abbreviation of The Onion Router. It can mean either the Tor networking system or the Tor browser. The networking system operates on an open network that anyone can join. It works by routing and encrypting connections through several other users’ computers. Each such re-routing point is known as a relay or node, and they receive and send the data forward. By default, Tor uses at least three relays between your device and the final connection hiding your IP address behind several layers and encrypting the data.

Tor network diagram explaining how tor works

How does Tor or Onion over VPN work?

Onion over VPN combines the encryption of the VPN between your device and the server. Plus, it adds several Tor relays between the VPN server and the final network request. It greatly extends the intermediaries in between the server you’re contacting and your device:

  1. You connect to a VPN server, which encrypts your connection and hides your real IP address.
  2. The request is then sent through a minimum of three relays to reach the intended destination

Suppose someone wanted to trace back the connection to the source – that would be almost impossible to do. Especially if you’re using a no-logs VPN service that you paid for anonymously.

Is Onion over VPN safe?

The major vulnerabilities in such a network configuration can fall on the separate intermediaries: either the VPN or the Onion network.

In the case of VPNs, not all of them are made equal. You have to be positive that the service is a no-logs VPN service. Don’t take the provider’s word for it. Records of refusal to collaborate with law enforcement, third-party audits can essentially prove whether you can trust a service. If the VPN keeps your logs, your privacy claims are invalidated, and it’s one of the potential threats to your anonymity.

In the case of the Onion network, the biggest downside is that it’s community-based, and everyone can set up a Tor node. It means that there are some rogue nodes managed by hackers that can potentially be spying on you. It isn’t as cookie-cutter to de-anonymize your connection. It would likely require a level of funding only available to national governments. Albeit a very theoretical possibility, it’s a point to consider.

When using Onion in tandem with a VPN, the best part is that your anonymity rests on two entities that are separate from each other. Even if there are risks and potential points of failure, the chain is longer, and there are more added safety measures than you would get if you used the service on its own. Plus, the VPN also encrypts some of the internet traffic that the Tor doesn’t encrypt, for example, ICMP. Plus, if you’re using just the Tor network, your ISP can tell that you’re using it. With a VPN, it becomes impossible to tell.

Do you need a VPN for Tor?

You can use the Tor browser or set up the connection so that all your traffic would go through their servers. Your traffic is encrypted, but your ISP can still see that you’re connecting to Tor. Plus, the first Tor node that you connect to can see your real IP address.

A VPN isn’t a requirement to use Tor, but it helps a lot. It encrypts your whole traffic, masking it from the ISP. In short, it’s much safer to use Tor with a VPN.

Pros & cons of using Onion over VPN

+ Pros

  • Multiple layers of encryption
  • Even if the Tor network is compromised, your real IP remains unknown
  • VPN features like a kill switch remain in place, protecting you while you browse
  • Many ISPs block the Tor networks altogether, so the only way to access them is via VPN
  • Neither the ISP nor VPN provider can see what you’re doing

Cons

  • Your speeds will be very slow due to the longer chain of intermediary servers
  • Tor exit nodes can get blocked at random times, cutting off your connection

How to use Tor over VPN?

Using Onion over VPN is simple. You’ll need a VPN service and the Tor Browser. If you want to route all of your traffic through Tor, you can use tools like Tortilla. This tool will route all your web traffic through Tor nodes. However, in most cases, you’ll likely be using the Tor Browser. Here’s how you can do it.

  1. Sign up for a VPN service. Anonymous payment options are your friends, and generally, you want to leave as little personally identifiable information as possible.
  2. Download and install the client on your device. Once you do, connect to whichever server gives you the best speeds.
  3. Download and install the Tor Browser. Launch the browser and connect to the Tor network.

Your browser connection is now under two sources of encryption: the VPN, and the Tor Browser. If you used Tortilla, this would apply to all your traffic. Keep in mind that such a setup would depend on many intermediary servers, so the network’s maximum speed would be very low. Hence, it’s better to stick to the Tor browser for truly private activities and use just a VPN for everyday usage.

VPNs with built-in Onion over VPN feature

There are only a few VPNs that integrate Tor functionalities into their services.

The leader in this area is NordVPN, which has a built-in Onion over VPN feature. You don’t have to add additional configuration to use it. The setup is pre-configured so that you could browse anonymously from the get-go and without the Tor browser or Tortilla.

nordvpn tor over vpn
NordVPN feature: Onion Over VPN

Onion over VPN vs. Double VPN

Keep in mind that if you want to remain anonymous, Onion over VPN is far from the only solution. Tor isn’t the only method to interconnect several secure connections. It’s also possible to use several VPNs. That way, your traffic is routed through several servers, and your traffic is encrypted twice.

Different VPN providers that have this built-in feature name it differently. It’s called as multi-hop, double VPN, nested VPN, or other. There is also the option to try and set it up yourself with two different VPN providers. However, you may encounter software compatibility issues (especially when Windows is prone to TAP driver errors). You could also be required to pay two subscription prices.

Should I use Tor bridges instead of a VPN?

When using the Tor network, you have an option to connect via Tor bridges. Bridges work in a similar way to relays, but they aren’t public and don’t appear in the main Tor directory. However, finding one can be a pain. You could set up one yourself, but this isn’t easy. Otherwise, it’s already public if you’ve found it, which also means that it can be blocked.

Tor bridges can add additional flexibility to your browsing experience. There are particular variants of them, for example obfuscated tor bridges that can be useful when accessing restricted content. Your ISP, in most cases, cannot block private Tor bridges.

Bottom line

Tor over VPN may seem like overkill. However, relying on just VPN or just Tor leaves may not be enough if you’re a journalist or political activist under an oppressive regime. With only the VPN, you’re trusting your service provider with the entirety of your data. With only Tor, the encryption might not be sufficient, plus the communal nature of Tor puts too much trust in every node to be trustworthy, which isn’t always the case. However, when used these services in conjunction, Onion over VPN is one of the most secure solutions that should be sufficient for whistleblowers and activists.

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