Coders have developed a Firefox variant, Torpark, that allows users to go online without worrying about the government, Internet service providers (ISPs) or others tracking their Internet activity.
Released by a self-described group of computer security experts and human rights workers that calls itself Hacktivismo, Torpark is an anonymous, portable Web browser that is based on Mozilla’s Firefox and is available for free under the GNU General Public License (GPL).
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The browser, which is pre-configured and requires no installation, can run from a USB memory stick and is aimed at cloaking online activity from both the browser and user’s computer, the group said.
“We live in a time [in which] acquisition technologies are cherry-picking and collating every aspect of our online lives,” said Hacktivismo founder Oxblood Ruffin. “Torpark continues Hacktivismo’s commitment to expanding privacy rights on the Internet.”
The issue of online privacy has become more significant in recent years because of fears of identity theft and increasingly sophisticated tracking and identification technologies that store and cross-reference information about Internet users.
Torpark works by frequently changing the Internet protocol (IP) address of users via The Onion Router (Tor) network, both to mask the addresses and to thwart eavesdropping and tracking efforts, backers said.
The data passing from the user’s computer into the Tor network is encrypted, making it impossible for even the user’s own ISP to see it. This data can include such information as sites visited and time spent on each.
Hacktivismo said there are limitations to the anonymity its solution provides, however. Data, for example, may not be encrypted when transmitted between the Tor network and Web sites. Users are warned to stick to secured login sessions that are verified by the browser with a padlock icon.
The increasing number of information spills, such as Internet giant AOL’s recent release of months’ worth of user search results, are heightening people’s awareness of Web-related privacy issues, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) Associate Director Lillie Coney told LinuxInsider.
“There is a definite increase in interest from consumers in keeping their privacy on the Internet,” Coney said, adding that available applications, such as Torpark, are only one response to the issue, in addition to legislative policy and industry oversight.
EPIC does not endorse specific products, but the organization does encourage users to be aware that browsing with physical privacy does not equate to cyber privacy, where there may be a number of parties watching, Coney said.
EPIC lists a number of e-mail, browsing and other privacy tools for Internet users on its Web site. Coney said companies and developers are responding to the demand for more privacy. However, there are also criticisms of such technologies, including charges that they assist criminals and terrorists, that Coney does not feel are warranted.
“We should not assume there is something wrong with the point of these technologies,” Coney said. “Demonizing possession of technology is a real problem.”
Privacy advocates, meanwhile, are pressing lawmakers for data retention regulation and oversight, and the promotion of higher standards of responsibility for service providers. “Consumer applications are only part of [the solution],” Coney noted.
AOL’s recent disclosure of users’ search information is another case that shows how vulnerable consumers’ Internet activity data is, IT-Harvest Founder and Chief Research Analyst Richard Stiennon told LinuxInsider.
He doubted that mainstream users would go to great lengths to anonymize and encrypt their Internet activity anytime soon.
However, technologies in this area have improved, and privacy and security applications come with less and less performance losses. Torpark browsing, if successful, may find its way into the Mozilla Firefox browser, he predicted.
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