How Tor is helping Russians who want to browse the internet uncensored

How Tor is helping Russians who want to browse the internet uncensored

Users who try to connect anonymously to the internet every day are on average more than two million. They do so through the Tor network, The Onion Router, an open-source project that seeks to defend the rights to freedom of information and privacy endangered by authoritarian regimes and by companies that build their fortunes on data mining. Behind this network is the work of the Tor Project, a non-profit organization founded in Seattle in 2006. reached out to its executive director Isabela Bagueros to find out more about the project's work.

Technology of the Tor Project “is made up of free and open source software and is divided into two parts: the Tor network and the Tor Browser”, explains Bagueros. The first is a decentralized network that allows you to browse online by hiding your IP address. "When you connect to the Tor network you go through three servers, called nodes: the connection is encrypted for each of these levels so that the complete information about who you are and where you are going is not in the hands of any of the three," Bagueros says. . The input node knows the user's IP address, while the output node knows the destination (the address visited); the central node has the purpose of preventing the other two from merging the information in their possession. This decentralization makes the connection more secure than a classic VPN, because the user does not have to trust a provider that can see the traffic.

A graphic illustration of the connection through the Tor network. Padlocks represent the three levels of encryption of the user's traffic information.

Giacomo PirroneTo access the net, the easiest way is Tor Browser. "It is a fork (a modified version, ed) of Mozilla Firefox configured to connect through our network and to protect the user's privacy, isolating third-party cookies and mitigating fingerprinting and other information that identifies the user through the client used ", says the executive.

In defense of anonymity on the internet Read the article Relations with Firefox On we wrote about the difficult period Firefox went through but Bagueros does not seem worried about it, despite having clear ideas about the importance of variety in the browser market, increasingly dominated by Google Chrome: “Whenever a hegemony is created in the market it is a problem, because there cannot be a single way to connect to the internet. However, I believe that Firefox still plays a relevant role, given its history and reputation. For us it is still the best choice for Tor Browser development, because it provides the best settings for privacy protection. " Despite this trust, a collaboration has recently emerged between the Tor Project and the developers of the Brave browser, which now provides the ability to activate an incognito mode that connects through Tor. "It's certainly less secure than the Tor Browser, but it's a great implementation that does what it promises, unlike the 'anonymous' modes found on other browsers," says Bagueros.

The decentralization concept behind base of the network refers to an idea of ​​the internet more similar to that in vogue between the 90s and early 2000s than to the walled gardens that characterized the last decade. Bagueros began his journey in this environment within Indymedia, the network of activists and journalists active in the early 2000s, an experience of fundamental inspiration for the work at the Tor Project. “A lot of what I do comes from there - she says - she. Sometimes when I talk about it to younger generations, I get surprised reactions: Indymedia allowed anyone to publish content without an account and did not keep IP address logs to protect activists from possible persecution by law enforcement. It taught me the importance of free software and to ask me who controls the information, where my data is stored online ".

An image to build Despite this background, the Tor Project has to deal with a public perception that sees it as a mere tool for illegal activities, identifying it with a rather confused idea of ​​"dark web". On this aspect, the director of the project underlines the danger of equating anonymity with crime. "The criminalization of privacy-preserving technologies such as cryptography is bad for society as a whole - Bagueros says -. When I hear that anonymity necessarily hides a criminal purpose, I always give the example of the vote: the pillar on which our democracies are built is anonymous, it could not work otherwise ".

Today, encryption is essential for many of our daily activities, from accessing a home banking app to private messaging, and a new sensitivity on privacy seems to be spreading. “In this sense we were pioneers, many of the ideas and technologies that are reaching the general public now we had already implemented them years ago,” says Bagueros. Hence the appeal: "Please, don't call us 'the dark web'".

Russian propaganda on war in Ukraine is creating a generational clash While Kremlin-controlled broadcasters act as a sounding board for government fake news, many young people use social networks and VPNs to search for alternative sources of information Read l 'article The response to the Russian blockade The main obstacle to the activities of the Tor Project is that set in place by governments that want to have a capillary control over the contents enjoyed by their citizens. The thought, in this period, can only go to the case of Russia, increasingly isolated from the rest of the world also due to the stringent censorship policies introduced by the Kremlin to control the narrative of the war in Ukraine.

Russia has always been one of the countries with the highest traffic on the Tor network, along with the United States and Germany, but since last December this has been made illegal and blocked. Bagueros explains the countermeasures of the project in these cases: “We have a mirror of the site and we are always available via email to send anyone who asks for an alternative link to download the browser. Once obtained, you can connect through a bridge server ”.

The list of Tor network nodes is in fact public, making it possible for a state to block all incoming connections to these servers. “The list of bridges, on the other hand, is private, there are some by default but it is possible to ask for new ones, we have a server that takes care of distributing them - says Bagueros -. It's a slower process because we ask you to resolve a captcha to prevent a malicious actor from trying to get back to the bridge list with automated requests, but it works. "

Proof of this is the sudden increase in the number of active users daily through bridges in Russia, where the network was blocked at the beginning of December. Bridges are also the simplest way for the common user to contribute to the network, adds the executive director: "We recently developed an extension compatible with the main browsers called Snowflake that allows anyone to provide a some of your internet bandwidth and share it with Tor users, without this revealing personal information of any kind. "

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Starting in early December, when Tor was blocked in the country, Russian users active across bridges have increased up to to surpass those in the rest of the world.

The community and open dimension of the project can also prove to be a double-edged sword: a few months ago an independent researcher, analyzing the traffic on the Tor network, discovered that someone, identified as KAX17, it was managing hundreds of nodes. The goal seemed to be to de-anonymize users, because the nodes in question were mainly entry and intermediate nodes. “We have a working group focused on evaluating the nodes entering the network, the Network Health Team. When more nodes come from the same source, we evaluate their reliability and decide whether to throw them out or not - explains Bagueros -. Monitoring is constant, because this type of more sophisticated attacks tend to repeat themselves over time. "

The work of the Tor Project is supported by that of many other open-source developer teams and is essential for activists and journalists all over the world . Its technology is used to protect whistleblowers through platforms such as SecureDrop and our WiredLeaks, launched just over a year ago, but also by messaging apps such as Briar or Session. “Our goal as a project is to guarantee human rights through our technology,” Bagueros concludes.

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