Tor: Yes Or No?

February 2nd, 2011   Submitted by Paul Rosenberg

I think that most Internet users with an interest in privacy have heard of Tor, the system of what is called onion routing.

Onion routing is a technique for repeatedly encrypting and forwarding data through several network nodes called onion routers. Each router removes a layer of encryption to uncover routing instructions, then sends the message to the next router where this is repeated. Intermediary nodes are prevented from knowing the origin, destination, and contents of the message. (Exit nodes know both the destination and the contents.)

So, Tor is a very clever technology, and it is free, so why isn’t it used more? And why then, should anyone pay for an anonymity service?

There reason is that Tor has some rather severe limitations:

  1. Tor is slow. Routing through an unpredictable path takes time, and varying lengths of time.
  2. Tor is free. Yes, this is a serious problem. When someone owns something and generates income from it, they almost always take care of it, and usually work hard to improve it. No such efforts are routinely applied to free things. Fixing a problem at a Tor node may or may not happen; upgrading is done strictly when convenient.
  3. Tor may include malicious nodes. When anyone can run a node, it’s not always nice people who do so. Think of it from a crook’s standpoint: Here we have lots of data traffic that people are trying to protect; it must be of some value. Anyone can open a node and gather information, with no path back to us – we’re just random people on the Internet, posing as humanitarians. Why not do it? When everyone (even groups like the CIA) can run a tor node anonymously and without any accountability, they can act badly and get away with it. And, in fact, several leaks of data through malicious Tor exit nodes have been confirmed.
  4. Tor is only for web browsing. For example, at my last check, no one was allowing email to run over their Tor node; it is simply too problematic. There are a lot more things to protect than surfing.
  5. Tor requires all the software on your computer that accesses the internet to be cooperative. Many programs, however, (whether created by shady marketers, governments, crooks, or just poorly written) are not cooperative, but bypass Tor and give away your network identity.
  6. For most people, Tor is to hard to use regularly. This makes security errors and leaks much more likely.

THE BETTER ANSWER

Since I am involved with a professional anonymity network, you might expect me to prefer my own product. And, in fact, I do. We built the system because it needed to be built. If Tor had been sufficient, we wouldn’t have undertaken the job.

A professionally operated anonymity network has multiple advantages over Tor, which I will list below. Bear in mind, however, that I think Tor is a very cool technology; it just isn’t one that I think can be trusted, or that is simple enough for serious daily use.

The reasons to pay for and use a professional network, rather than to use Tor for free, are these:

  1. Speed. A good anonymity network will always slow you down (this diagram illustrates why), but not by an excessive amount, and not by an erratic amount. While the speed may not be of the “blow your doors off” variety, it is quite manageable for daily use.
  2. Maintenance. If something goes wrong at Cryptohippie (my company), we jump to fix it. After all, we have paying customers, and we want to keep them happy. We have every incentive to fix things and keep them at top performance.
  3. Accountability. If Cryptohippie were to turn malicious, our users would know who to blame and who to avoid. The down-side to us would be the loss of our business, and then some. The malicious Tor node, on the other hand, simply drops out; the operators may never be known.
  4. Our system works for almost all Internet communication including Skype and chat. Once it is running, everything you do is protected and you use your computer as you always have.
  5. We include a private email system.
  6. Cryptohippie runs in the background. Connect then forget it – all your traffic will be protected. User errors are reduced and there are no side channel leaks. It is much easier, and for most users, that matters a lot.

HOW MANY HOPS?

I will also mention the one technical advantage that Tor has over us: They provide more server-to-server hops than we do.

Number of hops is a crucial factor for protecting Internet traffic. In the 1990s, lots of free proxies were used. These were all single-hop proxies (one server between you and the Internet), but they were fairly effective for the time. Since then, however, the data thieves have greatly improved their techniques. By watching data from two points, the protection provided by the single-hop proxy is mostly negated. (Many single-hop proxies still exist, having the one advantage that they are cheap.)

Tor provides more hops than anyone else, and that is a good thing. Sure, all the problems listed above remain, but – credit where credit is due – Tor does provide a lot of hops. Our network, on the other hand, provides a minimum of two, multi-jurisdictional hops. That means that our servers are located in geographically distant places (none in the US or UK) and in places subject to different legal administrations.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

The truth is that the “get it free!” meme is a dangerous one. Free is never without cost, even though that cost may not appear on a balance sheet.

Both Tor and Cryptohippie provide effective anonymity, but they both come with a catch. Tor forces you keep thinking and to remain on your toes; Cryptohippie costs you money.

Tor is a very cool technology, and its creators deserve credit. It remains a useful tool for people who know how to use it properly. It is not, however, a simple solution for Internet security. For that, you will have to pay. And, it could hardly be otherwise: Criminals make a lot of money stealing Internet traffic; they will keep adapting and developing new attacks. The only way to counter them is to have professionals on your side. And such people require payment.

Paul is the CEO of Cryptohippie USA. If you’d like more information on Cryptohippie, just email them: support@cryptohippie.com

19 Responses to “Tor: Yes Or No?”

  1. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    When you say your system works for “almost all” internet connections, which sort of connections or online activities are not anonymized?

  2. Mike VanLareNo Gravatar says:

    “Yes, this is a serious problem. When someone owns something and generates income from it, they almost always take care of it, and usually work hard to improve it. No such efforts are routinely applied to free things. Fixing a problem at a Tor node may or may not happen; upgrading is done strictly when convenient.”

    Bull.

    Free Open Source Software is not always abandoned. I prefer to use OSS because it is generally more secure. The source code is open to everyone, and hence it becomes more secure. I use KeePass to provide password security on all of my computers and Android phone. I use LinuxMint in some form or another on most of my computers. Debian version is the main one that I use.

    This post smells more like spam than anything. A decentralized system is MUCH better than a centralized system. See what happened last year with Skype when it’s system went down. I’m not saying that not paying is better than paying someone. I’m saying open source and decentralized is better than centralized and proprietary.

    What’s from stopping someone from trying to get information from your company about anyone who is your client? Sorry, I don’t see any benefit of this system, and I still stand by my claim that this is spam.

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      Mike, I’m still a noob when it comes to a lot of this technical stuff, so I can’t really debate this topic too heavily with confidence. If someone other than myself wrote a quality piece on why Tor is superior to VPN, I would likely publish it.

      But I do tend to side with the VPN side and I’d like to explain why. You’re welcome to shoot all of my arguments down though. I won’t hold it against you.

      For starters, I installed Tor on my Linux system a few months ago. But I couldn’t ever get it to work. I found Vidalia to be rather buggy and the whole Tor button thing was just a mess.

      That’s what led me to look further into VPN. Now, I agree with you totally that OSS is far superior to proprietary software, not only morally but also practically. However, I’m not sure VPN vs. Tor really has much to do with the OSS vs. proprietary software debate, does it? I mean, VPN services use OpenVPN software, which is free and open-source software.

      Tor, on the other hand, gets heavily subsidized by government agencies. Furthermore, the OSS debate doesn’t really apply here since we’re also talking about scarce resources, namely bandwidth and processing power. Tor has about ten leaches for every one donor. How is that a good thing?

      Look, I would love to see Tor, or something like it, really take off. But there is something fundamentally wrong with Tor that I can’t really put my finger on. If it were all that, I suspect a lot more people would be using it instead of paying for VPN service.

      • Mike VanLareNo Gravatar says:

        You do make a good point that Tor is not user-friendly, which is precisely why it hasn’t been used. On the other hand, OpenVPN’s do make a good way to get around the Tor issue, however how do I know the company running the VPN won’t snoop?

        I guess my bigger point was that this seems more like a spam post than anything, and the bashing on Tor and open source software in general was a little much.

        • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

          I thought Paul was fair to Tor. He mentioned it as being very cool technology and the fact that it has more hops than any VPN ever could. He even mentioned that the downside of VPN’s is that they cost money.

          Look, Paul is an anarcho-capitalist activist and he believes in internet anonymity. I see nothing wrong with explaining to the anarchist community why anonymity is valuable and why they should choose VPN over Tor.

          It’s like the fact that I am in media and I promote the selling of flags. It’s one in the same. My hope is that more anarchist activists will find ways to make their activism also their occupation.

    • PaulNo Gravatar says:

      Mike,

      Cry Bull all you like, but this is a very old problem called The Tragedy of The Commons. I didn’t make it up to sell stuff.

      Go ahead, set up your own free version of Cryptohippie, if you think you can. Here’s what you need to do: https://secure.cryptohippie.com/resources.php

      And, BTW, I didn’t bash open source software – our product uses the stuff!

      • Matthew SwaringenNo Gravatar says:

        I agree that your post is not SPAM, and thanks for advertising what may be a useful product in some circumstances.

  3. NateNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with the author’s points regardless of his having a vested interest in promoting an alternative to TOR.

    Any system will have vulnerabilities, and he highlights the potential vulnerabilities in a decentralized system like TOR. The fact that it’s open source is a double-edged sword: potential vulnerabilities are fixed because there are “many eyes” looking at the code, but it wouldn’t be that hard for a hacker to find and exploit a vulnerability by operating a rogue node.

  4. AnonymousNo Gravatar says:

    Ah, plain old commercial bullshit, how cute.
    Perhaps, Western “pedophiles” and Chinese dissidents would prefer your system it if was more trustable. But they don’t. Oh. Instead, they use that evil communist Free Software for some reason. Poor little bastard. You didn’t invent this shit to sell it, did you, honey?

  5. LolnonymousNo Gravatar says:

    Someone’s been reading “Atlas Shrugged” too much, eh, folks?
    Try Iain M. Banks instead.

    Alright, regarding Tor’s lamer-friendliness:
    Download either this https://amnesia.boum.org/ or that http://dee.su/ livecd, burn it, boot and you’re ready to roll, better than with any of these snake oil suppliers. You could even regulate the number and location of intermediate hops and exit nodes, oh.

    Email is also readily anonymized, chaps, as is any other TCP traffic, whether “cooperating” or not. Alternative SMTP ports are all open.

    If you need MOAR speed, try buying yourself better internets or use I2P. If the amount and selection of child porn and bomb manuals on tor hidden services and i2p eepsites isn’t enough for you, there’s always Freenet.

    kthnxbye, cryptoanarchy theorists.

  6. Justen RobertsonNo Gravatar says:

    Ultimately it’s going to take more than just covering your trail to open sites to provide true security. VPNs and TOR are just transitional technologies; what we really need is end-to-end anonymity and security. If you have to get to someplace on the ‘above-ground’ web TOR and VPNs are both viable choices, but they’re just obscuring a fundamentally insecure activity. The goal is pseudonymous darknets and mixnets. I2p and Freenet are a couple fledgling examples.

  7. Justen RobertsonNo Gravatar says:

    Oh, also, TOR isn’t really “free” like a free proxy or VPN is free. TOR is a cooperative service, like bittorrent. The price you pay for service is to provide it in turn.The value that TOR developers derive from continuing development is the use of a continually improving service (their support and investment inspires confidence). They’re getting “paid” through reciprocity. The exchange is equitable, not charitable, in nature.

  8. שולחן מחשבNo Gravatar says:

    היי הידעתם? ריהוט משרדי הינו כולל מחיצות אקוסטיות וכסא מנהלים ומחיצות אקוסטיות

  9. Bryce WhittyNo Gravatar says:

    Well well well, sorry about the late post but…

    Proprietary and Closed vs Open Source and Free

    Windows vs Linux

    and we all know how secure the former is. >.>; In fact, Google hijacked the latter for its own uses.

    A VPN is an old solution it’s also a minimalist version of TOR. In effect by limiting the number of nodes between you and your destination you are limiting your anonymity. This is just simple fact. I’m not saying that a VPN isn’t useful and I’m not saying TOR is the be all and end all. What I’m saying is…

    TOR > VPN… but why use just one when you can use both? It is recommended to use TOR with a VPN and then a free public proxy on the other end. To be perfectly honest the technologies involved aren’t much different and all you’re doing is playing pass the parcel, add a bit, pass it on (encrypt it, pass it on) and then in reverse with a few tweaks. When you boil it down that is.

    The process of disguising yourself takes bloody ages but the problem is, if someone wants to track you and you’re leaving trails…they’re going to find you no matter what software you happen to be using. A run down old shack in the middle of the Gobi desert is far more secure than Fort Knox. Why? No one knows where it is, what it’s holding, what it looks like or even how to get there. Regardless of the fact that it can be pushed over by a five year old with a fever.

    People who share and help each other are not rich in the slightest, but they are damn happy.

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  12. JonesNo Gravatar says:

    Being your company in USA you are always subject to the arbitrary requests under the Patriotic Act or not?

  13. PaulNo Gravatar says:

    The US office is for sales ONLY. We never touch network traffic.

    So, we don’t have anything more useful to them than credit card receipts. (Which they have anyway.)