I blogged a few months back about TOR – The Onion Router – an anonymizing technology that encrypts and reroutes packets between several computers to add a high degree of anonymity to web surfing. One of my complaints at the time was that TOR was a somewhat tricky install – much easier than most anonymizing technologies, but still non-trivial for a technical user. (The folks behind TOR realize this and are running a contest to create a highly usable graphical user interface for the tool.) And unlikely that most users accessing the Internet via cybercafes would be able to install TOR on the computers they were using.
The folks behind TorPark (whoever they are) have done a nice job of addressing this problem. Combining an alpha version of the new Firefox Deer Park browser with TOR and an installer (hence the name TOR + park), they’ve produced a 20MB package designed to fit on a USB key. Insert the USB key into the port of a cybercafe machine which runs Windows 2000 or XP, run torpark.exe, and an anonymized browser window will open, allowing you to surf the web leaving (for practical purposes) no traces behind.
I’ve been meaning to test the tool for some time now, and have been thwarted by the fact that I left my USB key in Amman. (It’s like leaving your wallet in El Segundo, just less funky.) Armed with a new USB key and a recent version of Torpark, I set myself loose on the few remaining Berkman Center PCs (we’re slowly moving Macwards here…) and tried it out.
It works. Really well. One click starts a script, opens a DOS window and a browser, which is then surfing through TOR. I’ve checked, using tools like noreply.org and the IP address is obscured. Ejecting the USB key removed obvious traces from the system (I haven’t gone and looked at the registry, for instance, to see if there are traces, for instance.) And the browsing experience is basically the slow, but satisfactory, experience I’ve had browsing with TOR. (Because TOR is routing your packets through multiple machines around the world, it tends to turn the experience of surfing on university broadband into the experience of a dial-up modem.) Yes, there are some problems – stylesheet heavy pages tend to look bad as some graphics and files fail to load. Some images break. But for the most part, you can surf the web effectively, without breaking most services.
I’m looking forward to trying it out from Tunisia in a few weeks and will be asking colleagues to try it in a few other heavily firewalled nations. I’m guessing there are three hard to solve difficulties that will prevent some users from adopting this as their preferred method of surfing the net:
– Not everyone’s got a USB key. Despite the fact that you can get a crappy, low-end 32MB key for $10 in the US, that doesn’t mean the same key will be available at that price in Ghana, for instance. If someone wants to finance a few thousand USB keys, I’m happy to coordinate a program that loads them with TorPark, the RSF guide for bloggers, and GPG and then hands them out to deserving activists – let me know if you’ve got a spare $50k.
– Not all cybercafes are particularly cooperative about letting you attach a USB key to their machines. I do this all the time, and I’ve gotten pretty stealthy about it, but I have, on more than one occasion, caused someone to yell at me in interesting languages not to modify their computers. I’ve usually been able to find a machine with an accesible USB, but I wonder whether this will continue to be the case in countries like Italy, where you now need an ID to use a cybercafe.
– TOR uses a small, published list of servers that transfer and obscure packets. In a country like Saudi Arabia, which maintains a strict firewall, it seems dead obvious that firewall administrators would simply block any traffic from the 345 servers currently listed… and add any new servers to the blacklist as they came online. I fully expect TOR to be completely blocked from within Tunisia, and look forward to checking and seeing if this is true when I visit in a few weeks – if you’re able to experiment from Saudi or China and let me know what you find out, I’d be grateful for the information.
And for the rest of you – if you’ve got a cybercafe, a USB key and some healthy paranoia, Torpark has some interesting technology for you. Now available for download in Chinese, French, Slovenian, Russian, Korean, Hebrew, Polish and Turkish.
(What! No Arabic!? No Farsi? C’mon, let’s get some volunteer translators working on this…)