Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Tor

I got Tor working at home. It's a proxy server that makes my web requests appear to come from a wide range of sources for the purpose of anonymity. I'm using it with privoxy (as recommended), which is a general purpose web proxy with features for eating cookies that invade privacy and blocking advertisements. They work well together, like Batman and Robin.

The result is that every time I hit a web page, I appear to be coming from a different IP address. Tor nodes are located throughout the world, it seems. Because I'm going through privoxy, certain web sites forget who I am sooner than they would otherwise (because of cookie filtering), but this is something I can control if I take the time to fix it.

I like the safety I get with Tor, but it is higher latency than direct Internet access. I've noticed some other oddities with this setup too.
  • Google appears in different languages according to where my Tor exit point is.
  • Sometimes I'm blocked from editing Wikipedia because other anonymous users have vandalized it.
  • I can't tell my statcounter whence I come anymore, so my own hits to my own blog show up in its logs again.
One other benefit of Tor is the layer of encryption it slaps on everything. By pushing things through Tor, local listeners are stymied. I may be way off base, but I'm less worried about random Tor exit nodes listening to my packets than I am about nearby users monitoring me. My communications are in the clear when they get where they're going, but they're all scrambled while they're nearby.

It's easy to send Yahoo! Messenger through privoxy (and Tor). As a result, a local listener can't even tell I'm using Yahoo!, let alone what I'm saying. It's even better than if Yahoo! were supporting encryption.

Although it's not much interest to the casual user, Tor allows what's called a hidden service wherein a server (say a web server) is available within the Tor network, but its location is unknown. I find this to be a nice way to make something available from behind a firewall. The otherwise inaccessible computer reaches out to the Tor network and offers a port for other Tor users. Since I now have Tor on most of the computers I use regularly, I can get to such a hidden computer easily.

Eventually this may lead to me having to let go of the idea that an IP address is an identifier. If all my communications are from the four corners of the globe, I can hardly expect the rest of the Internet to behave itself.

I highly recommend taking a look at Tor if you're the least bit technically inclined. It's not at all difficult to install, and it's just privacy all over.
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