Anonymous Browsing -- Hide Your IP

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Privacy, Information and Technology, 2nd EditionOnce the question came up, there was no turning back. One time my wife asked me why I was freaking out about IP addresses. I explained that due to some enterprising people, geo-location has become a lot easier. It makes a useful add-on to social networking. Take a look at this site where you can test with your own IP:
http://www.ipligence.com/geolocation. Different services can use IP address information and cross-reference that with open API's like that of Google Maps to map the actual location of an IP. This is useful when sharing geo-location on services like that of Google Latitude, Foursquare and Gowalla.

If for example I go to Robinson's Place and they happen to have free WiFi, I connect and the outside world gets an IP. The ISP knows the billing address and what IP was assigned to its connection at the time. That's one way to trace the physical address. I check in to Foursquare and see another user had already noted the address of Robinson's Place. That's another way to establish the location, a user contributing the location so a social networking site. Foursquare sees I'm checking in from a location using the same IP. So the site knows where I am based off an earlier user's check in. Surprisingly, it knows where I am. It suggests I check in to Robinson's Place and tells me who the 'Mayor' is. My Foursquare friends will see I'm at a particular address at the time I checked in. If map data for Robinson's Place is available, my location will show up courtesy of a map service. All my friends need are driving directions. This all happens in the background when all I did was tap a button on the Foursquare app on my phone. This is all dandy, but it's a privacy hazard at times.

Say, you want to keep your IP address info confidential, like if you're browsing from home and you don't want anyone snooping your location. There is a quick and easy way to protect your IP address from prying eyes. Use The Onion Router. TOR, as it is popularly called, makes use of anonymous exit nodes. There are people who volunteer to have their internet connections used as exit nodes for TOR. What that means is they volunteer their IP to be used by anyone else in the TOR network to hide the original IP. There are literally thousands of these exit nodes.

Here's normal browsing is handled by your computer and ISP. Your computer is given an IP by you ISP. Your browse to a website and your IP information is visible to the website you go to as well as to any other servers that the connection passes through. This is how the web works. It's called the web for a reason. Computers are connected to other computers and if there isn't any 'straight line' to the website you're browsing to, your computer finds a route through other computers until it eventually connects to the right server hosting the website. The information from the website finds its way back through the complicated web by using your IP to identify you.

IPLigence on a TOR Browser, I'm in Chicago
Here's how TOR works to anonymize your traffic. Your browse to a website. Instead of computer following your ISP's directions to connect to the website's server, your computer connects to the TOR network. Inside the TOR network, your traffic is randomly routed to an exit node. The website sees your traffic coming from that exit node and it thinks the request is coming from that IP. Remember, I said that lots of people volunteer their IP's as exit nodes. Random is important because it is harder to trace back that way. The website you browse to with then only see the IP of your exit node and not your own.

Think of it this way. Let's say water in a river flows through a certain route, connecting to other rivers until it reaches the open sea. The route as well as the source is visible. It can be traced back to the source, as the routes are known and in the open. That's how web traffic usually works. Then imagine water flowing through underground pipes, the pipes branching off to many different pipes and water flows to the sea from many different exits points. Imagine at any given time water takes a different route and exits through a different pipe. Imagine there is no fixed pattern where the water flows through or which pipe it exits to the sea. That's how TOR works, routes are hidden and random. You can't trace it back because only the exits are visible.

TOR has been especially useful to people living in countries that restrict internet use to control information. It's well known that TOR is used by people in places like China or Burma to circumvent Internet restrictions imposed by their government.

How to Be Invisible: The Essential Guide to Protecting Your Personal Privacy, Your Assets, and Your Life (Revised Edition)Though our needs may be different, we can still use TOR to anonymize our browsing. It's a free service and volunteering is optional. For Windows users, there's a pre-packaged portable version of Firefox that's been set-up with TOR. You can download it from here: http://www.torproject.org/torbrowser/dist/tor-browser-1.3.9_en-US.exe. Just remember where you save it. When you want to browse anonymously, open the folder and launch the Firefox browser. There is no need to install it. It works straight out of the box. The default settings work just fine so no need to fiddle around with the TOR network settings unless you're comfy doing so. More information on its features can be had here: http://www.torproject.org/faq.html.en. Read the FAQ if you want to learn more about the settings and how to use all the features.

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