Many political activists, nonprofits, and businesses use an anonymity system called Tor to encrypt and obscure what they do on the Internet. Now the U.S.-based nonprofit that distributes Tor is developing a low-cost home router with the same privacy protection built in.
The Tor software masks Web traffic by encrypting network messages and passing them through a series of relays (each Tor client can also become a relay for other users’ messages). But using Tor has typically meant installing the software on a computer and then tweaking its operating system to ensure that all traffic is routed correctly through the program.
“We want to make anonymity something that can happen everywhere, all the time,” says Jacob Appelbaum, a Tor project developer. “When you are connected to a router with Tor inside, all your traffic goes through Tor without you changing your system at all. It makes it simple to use.”
Appelbaum says volunteers are already testing a small number of modified routers with Tor installed. The prototypes were made by installing new software onto a popular low-cost wireless router made by Buffalo Technology. The software was developed by Appelbaum and colleagues at Tor and is based on the work of the OpenWrt project, which offers open source code for networking equipment. The finished routers can be configured to pass all traffic through Tor, or only some kinds of communications. “You might want to run your VOIP device through Tor but not your other traffic,” Appelbaum explains. They will also be capable of simultaneously offering Tor-protected and conventional wireless networks.
“If we find that these routers are useful [in the trials],” he says, “we could partner with OpenWrt and Buffalo to offer a version for sale that helps support the Tor and OpenWrt projects.” The software will also be made available for people to install on routers they have bought themselves, Appelbaum says.
Besides serving as Tor clients, the new routers will help anonymize the traffic of other Tor users. This means that they could help boost the performance the Tor network.