Tor Nodes and Virtual Machines
Continuing from my previous post on How to surf the internet anonymously in which I discussed a few of the basic ways that you can hide or mask your identity online.
There are many different reasons why you might wish to anonymise your internet activities, ranging from data privacy concerns to overcoming restrictive government internet filters. to today we will look at some more advanced and robust techniques that you can use to surf anonymously.
We spoke briefly, last time, about the Tor Project.
Originally developed for the US Military the Tor Project uses Onion routing technology to scramble and anonymise data sent between the user and the end target. The name TOR is, itself, an acronym for “The Onion Router”. The term “onion” is used to reflect the way in which the data is encrypted in layers. any request sent over the tor network will bounce between several different servers before reaching the intended recipient, between each connection the data will be subjected to another layer of encryption. This layering of encryption is designed to prevent unauthorised decryption of the data by both external sources, as well as internal members of the Tor network.
The end effect is that the target (let’s say for example a website you wish to view) has no idea of the genuine source of the request.
The connections in the Tor Network have no idea of the source or content of the request.
The TorProject.org has some great diagrams to explain how the system works:
Using the Tor network is by far one of the most robust ways that you can anonymise your online activities, its decentralised structure leaves it with no one person or company having an overview of all the data that flows across it. All the network points that you send data across are computers run that volunteer to run as “Tor Nodes”.The entire network runs off of people volunteering up their computers to use as nodes in the network. In a way the system is a kind of P2P anonymity network.
Volunteering to run your computer as a Tor Node is, in my opinion, quite a valiant thing to do. By doing so you are single handedly helping to lift internet restrictions for people around the world, such as those that live in countries with oppressive internet censorship rules.
However this should come with a word of warning.
If you do run a Tor node on your computer you are opening up your IP address to be used by anyone anonymously. Whilst the most of this traffic is benign and boring, you do leave open the possibility that people could commit potentially illegal internet activities from your IP address. The Tor Network itself offers up some great advice on running a Tor Exit Node and how you can reduce the likelihood of encountering problems.
Another thing that can give away clues to your identity is the computer and operating system you use. Most web analytics software can very readily pick up what browser you are using, what operating system etc, etc. On top of that there is always the possibility of pesky cookies stored on your computer giving away information (flash cookies in particular are notoriously persistent). In any case a brand new computer obviously contains no personal data which in turn reduces the possibility of and personal data being compromised.
Obviously It would be impractical to buy a new computer or to re-install your operating system each time you wanted to use the internet.
What is possible however is to use a virtual machine. Virtual Machines is the name given to software that makes it possible to run other operating systems as a program within your current Operating System.
For example you could use an Apple Mac running Mac OSX, and have a Virtual Machine running Windows 7.
The benefits of this are clear, to start with you get a different MAC address which cant hurt in terms of hiding your real identity.
With a Virtual Machine it is much easier to modify/clean the operating system to remove any personal or sensitive data.
Lifehacker.com did a great piece on the five Best Virtual Machine Applications.
As with any kind of anonymity and data privacy software it is only as good as the person using it, even using the best most robust anonymity and privacy software wont stop you from making mistakes and giving away your identity. The chances are if you use the internet anonymously in order to break the law and commit crimes, you will more than likely be caught and find yourself in trouble. Most of the recent cases of computer misuse have been bought before the courts because the suspected trouble makers were ousted by others revealing their names and details.