PogoPlug has come up with an easy-to-use solution, aimed at the general public, for safeguarding Internet users’ anonymity, piggy-backing on the Tor volunteer network.
While Twitter has just published a riposte to the repeated assaults from the National Security Agency and other governmental agencies worldwide on its user data, by, among other things, adopting a new policy of encrypting the traffic on its network, other companies are now coming up with solutions designed to make our use of the Internet more secure. One promising strategy is to focus on rendering anonymous the source of transmitted data, i.e. protecting the IP address and thus making it impossible to identify the user. Today the best-known way to keep online data flows anonymous is to use Tor software, but this is fairly cumbersome to use and you need to be quite technically-minded to set it up. Now self-hosted Cloud device provider PogoPlug has just launched a mass-market network appliance called SafePlug, which is designed to use the Tor ‘onion routing’ approach in order to provide identity protection functionality that is fast and flexible.
Identity-screening optimized by the power of the networks
The Tor network is a ‘virtual tunnel’ system intended to protect user IP addresses, plus information generally associated with the address, including location, linked accounts, etc. To use Tor, however, you normally have to download a number of pieces of software and a browser for each of your computers or devices. Safeplug is a box designed to be plugged in immediately to a home network router; it then encrypts and transmits all data traffic across the Tor network. Thus Safeplug functions as a proxy, an intermediary between the platforms connected to the terminal and the web. Data traffic is taken through an indirect, ‘twisty’ route, which hides the IP address from online service providers, websites, etc. What actually happens is that the data passes through a series of ‘relays’, coordinated by volunteers. They are encrypted on an ongoing basis, rendering them anonymous at each link in the chain – hence the metaphor of the onion ‘layers’. Tor already has close to 4,000 relays worldwide and the effectiveness of the identity-screening system depends on this army of volunteers, who are putting in their best efforts on behalf of over three million Internet users who rely on Tor on a daily basis. Jed Putterman, Chief Product Officer at PogoPlug, describes Safeplug as a ‘mass-market product which is easy to use’. As an added service, it will also filter out web-based advertising, functionality which users can tailor for themselves.
A flexible, customizable service
This Tor-based system is nevertheless not without its drawbacks. In particular, when routing through the Tor labyrinth, users are likely to notice a reduction in overall Internet speed and slower page-loading. To counter this disadvantage, Safeplug provides an ‘à la carte’ service that enables users to disconnect some of their equipment which requires high-speed connectivity, such as connected TVs or networked games consoles. Finally, as automation tools specialist Mehmet Gunes, Assistant Professor at the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno, points out, Safeplug is not a panacea. Users wishing to preserve their anonymity will also need to change their habits. Tor provides protection by scrambling the link between the source and the destination, but users are still liable to leave permanent traces via Flash plug-ins and other integrated applications. Using Safeplug should therefore go hand-in-hand with ever-increasing vigilance over one’s everyday online behavior.