With the growing concern about privacy on the web today, it makes more sense than ever to keep your identity, information, and traffic secure. In my hunt for secure browsing I discovered the Tor Project: a collection of routed computers which gives you anonymity online. Once I had enjoyed the desktop version I noticed the Android version. I downloaded it, loved it, and would now like to share this application with you.
What Is the Tor Network?
The network is a collection of computers running the desktop version of Tor in routing mode. They connect together to form a chain of networked computers between you and your destination addresses. Each computer does not know who is passing on the data or who it came from two stages ago. Think of it as a relay race in which you can only look forwards. Every now and then your routing pattern is altered, and any website that was monitoring your connection or behaviour will no longer be able to recognise you. They will see an entirely new connection, but you can carry on as you were, seamlessly.
An encryption algorithm is also run over all of the data, to help maximise security and reduce the ability to trace the connection to source. The Tor network is effectively a long string of encrypted proxy servers.
What You Can Use It For
The clearest perk of using Tor is that it encrypts and masks true routing of network traffic. When using the desktop version, this can allow you to do anything from submitting to forums anonymously, to getting on Facebook at work. The Android version will also do this, but has some uses more relevant to mobile devices.
Being Secure on Hotspots, and at Home
Everyone loves free WiFi, but most providers leave it unsecured. Though that makes it easy for you to connect to, it does mean that anyone can hover on there waiting for people to begin communications to Facebook, eBay and elsewhere. They either want to cause mischief because they’ve nothing better to do, or because they have far more malicious intent.
A year or so back the Firesheep tool came out, and could detect people’s connections to Facebook and other standard HTTP connected sites (Facebook is now HTTPS). Once detected, a trick Firesheep performed involving Cookies could allow you to log in as another person. Software packages like Wireshark also make it easy to intercept and record people’s traffic so it can be analysed later.
Since the Tor network encrypts your data, this makes it an invaluable and easy tool when on open public WiFi. All it takes is a few taps to get running, and you become far more protected than before.
Last year in the Egyptian riots, many people were arrested because they were traced to organising events across Twitter. Tools like Tor help ensure anonymity and help keep people safe. One of the uses advertised on the Google Play page is that if you witness something and are able to record it, then want to broadcast it without being traceable, Tor is the perfect way to accomplish this.
The Application Itself
In comparison to the complexities of Tor and how it operates, the application itself is surprisingly simple. After a brief initial setup where you choose which aspects of your device to protect, Orbot logs itself onto the Tor network for you, and starts protecting all the traffic to and from your device (unless you chose to specify individual apps).
Orbot does require root access. This is necessary to make the appropriate adjustments to your network configuration each time you enable it, and then restore them to how they were afterwards. Applications on unrooted devices do not have the system rights necessary to modify network connections.
However, Orbot can still be used on unrooted devices if you couple it with Orweb. This is an app from the Tor Project that allows you to enjoy secure browsing without needing root access. You can also use Gibberbot for secure, off-the-record chat with encryption.
After a brief initialisation, I am ready to enjoy anonymous browsing.
To ensure you are on the Tor network you can choose to ‘Check’; this function is handy as occasionally the button on screen can get itself confused, especially if you toggle it on and off frequently. The Check option points your browser to the checking service on the Tor website; if all is good then you see a message similar to this:
The routing process is working, because that is not my real IP address.
Orbot is a fantastic tool to have if you need to use a secure connection, or have a desire to proxy. It doesn’t noticeably alter your connection speed either, as the volunteer routing hosts are almost always using servers with tremendous bandwidth.
For Orbot’s AppStorm rating, I’m sure it’s worthy of 9/10. It has everything that an application intended to create widespread security needs: a simple easy-to-understand interface and easy-to-understand settings, which aren’t too technical despite the underlying complexity. Finally, the big green power button makes it easy to come back and toggle Orbot on and off as needed. The application and entire service is free too – what more could you ask for?
The Tor Project is also available for every computer operating system as a small program that’s easy to install and run. You also get to see how your connection is routed, as well as the specifications of the servers which are dealing with your connection. If you find you enjoy Orbot on Android, you should definitely try Tor on your computer. If you have an iOS device, there is a client available for you too!