A group dedicated to preserving civil liberties on the Internet announced this week that it’s throwing its weight behind the development of a technology to foster anonymity in cyberspace.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) of San Francisco said in a statement that it is sponsoring the Tor Project, which has created an open-source application to help users remain anonymous when they surf the Web.
According to EFF Technology Manager Chris Palmer, backing Tor is a way to safeguard on the Internet the real-world right to anonymity established by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “The way the Internet works, you can’t necessarily be anonymous,” he told TechNewsWorld.
For example, he said, the popular search engine Google tracks the IP addresses of people who use it and assigns a unique user identification to that address in a cookie that resides on a user’s hard drive and doesn’t expire until 2038. That enables them to link every single search made on Google to a unique user, he explained.
In some cases, collecting an IP address can be tantamount to collecting personal identifying information, he continued. “If you know an IP address, you can find out what Internet service provider has that IP address,” he explained. “Then you can subpoena that Internet Service Provider and make them tell you what subscriber of theirs had that IP address at a certain time.”
That kind of IP harvesting can be thwarted by Tor. “It’s not a complete solution for anonymity, probably no one program could be, but it’s definitely an important part of the solution,” Palmer said.
Onion Makes Sniffers Cry
Tor is based on work done by Paul Syverson at the Center for High Assurance Computer Systems, which is part of the Naval Research Laboratory in Silver Spring, Maryland, and further developed by Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson of the Tor Project.
It uses a technology called “onion routing.” That scheme utilizes a series of computers to make the path of a communication on the Internet anonymous. “The goal is to prevent communicating parties and possible eavesdroppers or attackers from learning who is talking with whom over a network like the Internet,” Mathewson said.
He explained that the system works by relaying a conversation through several servers, or onion routers, encrypting it with separate keys at each step so each onion router only sees a portion of the path traveled by the communication.
Spreekt u Nederlands?
Palmer can attest to the scheme’s effectiveness. “When I use Tor and I visit Google, I sometimes get Google in Dutch or German or Japanese because I appear to be coming from an IP address in one of those countries,” he said.
Although that kind of anonymity might be useful to netizens with less than pristine motives, Project Leader Dingledine told TechNewsWorld: “People who are willing to break the laws are doing fine breaking the laws. What Tor aims to provide is a privacy and anonymity platform for people who want to follow the law. Right now nothing is available for normal, honest citizens.”
Nevertheless, Tor’s developers have built in some safeguards aimed at Net miscreants. “By default, most Tor servers on the Internet will refuse to send e-mail so they can’t be abused by spammers,” Palmer said.
Best of Intentions
“Nobody involved with this wants to help anybody do bad things,” Mathewson added. “If we knew how to make the software so that it would only work for people with good intentions, then we would in a second.”
“Detroit doesn’t know how to build a car that can’t be used as a getwaway car,” he continued. “In the end, we believe that this stuff will help regular people more than it will help criminals.”