Editors’ note: Updated below with clarifications about Germar’s claims of Anonabox using “custom” hardware.
No tool in existence protects your anonymity on the Web better than the software Tor, which encrypts Internet traffic and bounces it through random computers around the world. But for guarding anything other than Web browsing, Tor has required a mixture of finicky technical setup and software tweaks. Now routing allyour traffic through Tor may be as simple as putting a portable hardware condom on your ethernet cable.
Today a group of privacy-focused developers plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign for Anonabox. The $45 open-source router automatically directs all data that connects to it by ethernet or Wifi through the Tor network, hiding the user’s IP address and skirting censorship. It’s also small enough to hide two in a pack of cigarettes. Anonabox’s tiny size means users can carry the device with them anywhere, plugging it into an office ethernet cable to do sensitive work or in a cybercafe in China to evade the Great Firewall. The result, if Anonabox fulfills its security promises, is that it could become significantly easier to anonymize all your traffic with Tor—not just Web browsing, but email, instant messaging, filesharing and all the other miscellaneous digital exhaust that your computer leaves behind online.
“Now all your programs, no matter what you do on your computer, are routed over the Tor network,” says August Germar, one of the independent IT consultants who spent the last four years developing the Anonabox. He says it was built with the intention of making Tor easier to use not just for the software’s Western fans, but for those who really need it more Internet-repressive regimes. “It was important to us that it be portable and small—something you can easily conceal or even throw away if you have to get rid of it.”
This has happened before
Anonabox is by no means the first project to attempt to integrate Tor directly into a router. But Germar argues it will strike the best balance yet of cheapness, easy setup, size and security. Tor-in-a-box projects like Torouter and PORTAL, for instance, require the user to replace the software on a stock router. Another project called OnionPi is designed to be built one from a kit, and costs roughly twice as much as Anonabox.
In terms of consumer friendliness, the closest device yet to a plug-and-play Tor router has been Safeplug, a $49 variant on a Pogoplug router modified to route all traffic over Tor. But at more than twice the size, the Safeplug isn’t nearly as portable as the Anonabox. And it’s also been criticized for security flaws; Researchers at Princeton found in September that it didn’t have any authentication on its settings page. That means a hacker could use a technique called a Cross-Site Request Forgery to trick a user into clicking on a link that would change the router’s functions or turn off its Tor routing altogether. It also uses an outdated version of Tor, one that had been updated even before the device shipped last year.
Anonabox’s security hasn’t yet been audited for those sorts of flaws. But its creators point out that it will be entirely open source, so its code can be more easily scrutinized for errors and fixed if necessary.
The community is watching
The non-profit Tor project itself is reserving judgment for now. But its executive director Andrew Lewman tells WIRED he’s keeping an eye on the project, and that it “looks promising so far.” Micah Lee, lead technologist for Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept and a frequent developer on Tor-related projects, says he’s mostly encouraged by the idea. One of the potential vulnerabilities for Tor users, after all, is that a website they visit could run an exploit on their computer, installing malware that “phones home” to a server across a non-Tor connection to reveal their real IP address. “If you’re using something like this, everything goes over Tor, so that can’t happen,” Lee says. “A Tor router can definitely have a big benefit in that there’s physical isolation.”
He nonetheless cautions that Anonabox alone won’t fully protect a user’s privacy. If you use the same browser for your anonymous and normal Internet activities, for instance, websites can use “browser fingerprinting” techniques like cookies to identify you. Lee suggests that even when routing traffic over Tor with Anonabox, users should use the Tor Browser, a hardened browser that avoids those fingerprinting techniques. (To avoid running their traffic through Tor twice and reducing bandwidth speeds to a crawl, he points to a setting in the Tor Browser called “transparent torification,” which turns off the browser’s own Tor routing.)
The Anonabox has been in the works since 2010, long enough that its developers have been able to try several stock boards sourced from Chinese suppliers, and to tweak their final choice to add flash memory, according to Germar. That customization, Germar says, means the tiny device still packs in 64 megabytes of storage and a 580 megahertz processor, easily enough to fit the Tor software and run it without any slowdowns.1
Built for civil disobedience
Germar says he and his friends began thinking about the possibility for the device around the time of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and early 2011. The Anonabox is ultimately intended for users in other countries where Tor’s anti-censorship and privacy properties can help shield activists and journalists. It can be used in a cybercafe, for instance, where users can’t easily install new software on computers. And it’s capable of so-called “pluggable transports”—extensions to Tor that often allow its traffic to better impersonate normal encrypted data.
The hardware design of the Anonabox is also intended to work in the most sensitive international situations: It uses a micro-USB as a power source, a common standard around the world, and its small size is meant to allow easy concealment. Germar points out that its rounded corners means it can even be stowed in a bodily orifice. And it can be destroyed more easily than a larger router. “Maybe it’s too late and the police are already downstairs, so you smash the box with a brick and throw the pieces out the window,” he says. “Or maybe you just crush it by stepping on it with your shoe and flush the pieces down the toilet.”
Germar’s ultimate goal, he says, is to bring Tor to a new audience that has never before had access to its protections. “This isn’t just about making things easier for people who use Tor now, but also those who would like to use Tor but can’t for whatever reason,” he says. “Those are the people we want to help.”
1Update 9:15am 10/15/2014: As the Anonabox Kickstarter campaign has exploded to half a million dollars in just over two days (despite its initial goal of only $7,500) some critics on Reddit have called attention to Germar’s misrepresentation of the “custom” hardware board and plastic case used for the device. They point to stock devices available on Alibaba from Chinese suppliers that appear to be nearly identical. This piece has been corrected from an earlier version that included his claims that both the board and case were custom-built for the project.
In a followup phone call with Germar, he clarified that the router was created from a stock board sourced from the Chinese supplier Gainstrong. But he says that the project’s developers requested Gainstrong add flash memory to the board to better accommodate Tor’s storage demands. Germar also says now that the case was supplied by Gainstrong and was not custom-designed by the Anonabox developers, a partial reversal of how he initially described it to WIRED.