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Tor & Anonymizers

The Internet is basically an open network based on trust. When you connect to a web server across the Internet, your traffic passes through many different routers, owned by a great variety of institutions, corporations and individuals. In principle, any one of these routers has the ability to look closely at your data, seeing as a minimum the source and destination addresses, and quite often also the actual content of the data. Even if your data is encrypted using a secure protocol, it is possible for your Internet provider to monitor the amount of data and the source and destination of that data. Often this is enough to piece together a fairly complete picture of your activities on-line.

Privacy and anonymity are important, and closely linked to each other. There are many valid reasons to consider protecting your privacy by anonymizing your network traffic. Suppose you want to offer Internet connectivity to your local community by setting up a number of access points for people to connect to. Whether you charge them for their access or not, there is always the risk that people use the network for something that is not legal in your country or region. You could plead with the legal system that this particular illegal action was not performed by yourself, but could have been performed by anyone connecting to your network. The problem is neatly sidestepped if it were technically infeasible to determine where your traffic was actually headed. And what about on-line censorship? Publishing web pages anonymously may also be necessary to avoid government censorship.

There are tools that allow you to anonymize your traffic in relatively easy ways. The combination of Tor (tor.eff.org) and Privoxy (www.privoxy.org) is a powerful way to run a local proxy server that will pass your Internet traffic through a number of servers all across the net, making it very difficult to follow the trail of information. Tor can be run on a local PC, under Microsoft Windows, Mac OSX, Linux and a variety of BSD's, where it anonymizes traffic from the browser on that particular machine. Tor and Privoxy can also be installed on a gateway server, or even a small embedded access point (such as a Linksys WRT54G) where they provides anonymity to all network users automatically.

Tor works by repeatedly bouncing your TCP connections across a number of servers spread throughout the Internet, and by wrapping routing information in a number of encrypted layers (hence the term onion routing), that get peeled off as the packet moves across the network. This means that, at any given point in the network, the source and destination addresses cannot be linked together. This makes traffic analysis extremely difficult.

The need for the Privoxy privacy proxy in connection with Tor is due to the fact that name server queries (DNS queries) in most cases are not passed through the proxy server, and someone analyzing your traffic would easily be able to see that you were trying to reach a specific site (say google.com) by the fact that you sent a DNS query to translate google.com to the appropriate IP address. Privoxy connects to Tor as a SOCKS4a proxy, which uses host-names (not IP addresses) to get your packets to the intended destination.

In other words, using Privoxy with Tor is a simple and effective way to prevent traffic analysis from linking your IP address with the services you use online. Combined with secure, encrypted protocols (such as those we have seen in this chapter), Tor and Privoxy provide a high level of anonymity on the Internet.

Last Update: 2007-01-17