May 8, 2006

TorPark: A secure, anonymous, and portable Web browser

Author: Nathan Willis

TorPark is the intersection of two relatively recent free software developments: portable Firefox and the onion router. Just like the chocolate and peanut butter of the old Reese's ads, they taste better together. With TorPark on a USB flash drive, you can bring the power and flexibility of Firefox with you when you travel -- and count on Tor to keep your browsing anonymous and secure at the same time.

The current TorPark package (1.5.0.2) is available as a 5.6MB self-extracting Windows archive, localized for more than 30 languages. Expand the archive and inside you will find a folder that you can copy directly onto any rewriteable medium (flash drive, hard drive, etc.). TorPark will not run from a CD, since it must write to a local directory.

The folder contains a portable build of Firefox 1.5, a pre-configured Tor installation, and the Torpark.exe executable. Running Torpark.exe establishes an encrypted circuit to the distributed anonymous network of Tor routers, then launches Firefox. You can test whether TorPark is running by pointing the browser at a Web site like whatismyip.com; the IP address reported by the site should be different in TorPark than it is in a native browser.

Anonymous appeel

If you are not sure why anyone would want to run TorPark, read the documentation on the Tor Web site. In brief, Tor makes you virtually untraceable and protects you from local snooping as well. TorPark adds the ability to enjoy this same level of security from public computers, Internet caf├ęs, hotel lounges, or anywhere else that network and machine security are out of your hands.

The tradeoffs for this security are decreased network speed and some limitations on your browsing experience. The speed issue is the result of Tor's routing your TCP traffic through a mesh of three Tor servers before taking it to its destination. Overall network throughput is slightly degraded, but you will most likely notice the effect in the initial lag between clicking on a link and when the page begins to load.

As for the browsing experience, TorPark by default ships with JavaScript deactivated and no multimedia plugins. You can change this, but both JavaScript and plugins like Flash and QuickTime gather data from your local machine and send it back to the remote server, so your anonymity cannot be guaranteed (although your connection will still be encrypted on the local network). Java plugins will not work with TorPark because they cannot be made "portable" at all, because they require too much low-level access to the operating system.

If you can learn to live with these limitations, TorPark is the safest way to browse the Web when out in the wild world. I downloaded it and tried it on a local public library PC. I experienced a noticeable initial delay between clicking on a link and when the link loaded; on several occasions I even had the connection time out. You can tweak Firefox's settings to outwait the timeout problems through trial and error, but you get no guarantees that you won't have to tweak them again at your next location.

The good news is that TorPark does not require you to undertake any such tweaks in order to run. It literally could not be any simpler to use: copy the folder as-is to your flash drive, and click to begin. I love it when software just works.

Click to enlarge

Take up your onion and walk

For the time being, TorPark is only available as a Windows package. The project's FAQ says that a Mac version is possible but not in the works, simply for lack of a machine. As for a Linux version, it is certainly possible, although the market would be much smaller due to the paucity of Linux computers being used as public terminals.

Another obvious advancement would seem to be adding email, instant messenger, chat, file transfer, or VoIP applications to the mix. Here, there are some limitations imposed by Tor itself. For starters, Tor only operates on TCP connections, which would eliminate UDP-dependent application such as FTP and many multimedia protocols. Furthermore, the speed of the Tor network could render real-time communication attempts unbearable.

Anyone willing to learn the ins and outs of Tor configuration can load up a USB flash drive with a suite of portable applications and configure them manually. But TorPark is a clear winner for its simplicity and ease of use.

Category:

  • Programming
Click Here!