A friend of mine recently asked me about the TOR network because of a PC world article he had read. First, I’d like to state that the article actually has a lot of good general information, covering a lot of general security problems with solutions to them that have been time proven and useful to millions of people (VPNs, privacy/incognito mode in browsers, cookie management, bugmenot, etc). However, I think the article does not cover the realities of TOR and VPNs at all, so I figured I’d write up an article on these topics that I could share with my inquisitive friend and anyone else who is interested.
I used TOR back in the early 2000s and it’s not cracked up to what the article would have you think. Basically, it securely routes your connection through a few other people’s internet connections (we’ll say 3 for examples sake). The computers/nodes between you and the “exit node” in the route can’t read what your traffic data says because it’s all encrypted, but the final person/computer (the “exit node”) literally sees, in clear text, 100% of your data as if you were sending/receiving it out of your own machine without the TOR network. So if you are doing anything that isn’t natively encrypted (instant message chatting without OTR, going to a site via http instead of https) the exit node can snoop on everything you do. They can even see the domain (not the entire URL) of WHERE you are going with https1. If I recall, you can’t really control the exit node as, I think, it semi-randomly picks it from any person in the world running a TOR router node.
So all TOR really does for you is make servers that you connect to not know from where you are coming. So one day it may think you are coming from Michigan, and another day, from Singapore. And honestly, for most people that isn’t even really all that important. Do you really care if servers you go to on the internet know you are coming in from your home town? (They generally can’t pinpoint further than that without getting a warrant and asking the ISP). All that's really done with this data is correlation. Seeing that someone from this IP address that went to this one website also went to this other website.
And even worse, TOR is known for being ungodly slow. Back when I was using it I was LUCKY to get 15KB/s throughput on my connections, and I doubt it has changed much (though you could get lucky too on your “randomly” chosen connection nodes). This means to download a normal webpage (~1.5MB for arguments sake) it would take ~2 minutes to download the page instead of 1-2 seconds for normal broadband users.
The more important thing (than anonymity) for online security is making sure everything you do is encrypted end point to end point (privacy). That means using securely encrypted (usually SSL) connections (https is SSL on top of http). That makes it so no one can snoop on conversations between your computer and the server you are communicating with. Location anonymity isn’t really that important unless you have something to hide that you think someone may try to find you for, though taking appropriate precautions (next few paragraphs) could never hurt. TOR is actually probably more hurtful in the long run since the exit node is an untrusted user who can spy on your unencrypted traffic.
Now, if you really wanted an appropriate solution for privacy (not anonymity), you only ever let your unencrypted traffic exit out of trusted networks. This generally means your house (and maybe your office), though even from those places their ISPs could easily “spy” on your unencrypted traffic. And technically, any router in between you and the server you are connected to can spy on your unencrypted traffic, though there is too much traffic going on for anyone in between ISPs to really even want to try this sort of thing. So it’s not a bad idea to set up a VPN server at a secure locations for yourself so you can connect in and route your traffic through the secure location when you are anywhere on the planet. For this I would recommend OpenVPN, and make sure you configure your client to route all traffic through the VPN tunnel. This approach could severely reduce your connection speed as most broadband connections have a much lower upload than download (meaning when your VPN server sends data back to you, it’s most likely slower than you would normally get it).
However, the speed issue can be solved by setting up your VPN server at a collocation (or on a cloud like Amazon’s), as these collocation ISPs route through so much traffic it would be unfeasible for them to snoop, nor often would they have as much inclination to do so. This wouldn’t give great anonymity since only a handful of people would most likely be using these VPNs, and they will generally exit from the same IP address, but it gives a great amount of privacy when on untrusted (or any) internet connection, and there are no noticeable speed decreases if at a good collocation.
The best solution is to use a paid-for VPN service. However, you would have to of course trust this service to not be spying on your unencrypted traffic, which they generally wouldn’t do. These services are good because they (should be) fast, they are secure exit points, and best of all they can be anonymous to a large degree. Since so many people are coming from the same exit points, and your exit point’s IP could change in between each connection with these VPNs, there’s no easy way to know who the traffic is coming from on a monitoring perspective outside of the VPN provider.
However, there are also downsides to using these VPN services since many providers depend and filter based on location data. For example:
- If you are coming from outside of the country many services inside the USA may block you
- Providers needing your location to provide a service for you would have the wrong location. For example, Google Maps wouldn’t know what area to search around when you asked for “restaurants”. You would have to specify “restaurants around my address”
- Some banks and services check to make sure you are always coming in from the same IP addresses. If you aren’t, it makes you go through additional, often convoluted, security checks.
Some networks you may connect to (hotels for example) may also block VPNs, which can be a major pain. However, I can usually get through using dynamic SSH tunnels (“ssh -D” for a socks proxy) at the very least.
If I were to recommend a paid-for VPN service, it would be PirateBay’s ipredator. This service was set up to help the people of Sweden get around some bad laws passed regarding user privacy. I’m sure they have enough users so you would become one of the crowd, and The Pirate Bay has proven themselves to be trustworthy advocates of internet freedom.
1Modern browsers include the domain you are visiting in the https connection packet in plain text, via the Server Name Indication TLS extension. This means if someone is snooping on your packets, they will see the domain you are visiting via https.