Onion Pi: Foil the NSA and Prism with a Tor proxy

Some housekeeping first. As you can see, I’m upright and typing again. Turned out that I had a really unusually nasty dose of ‘flu. It started as what I thought was a bad cold, but kept getting worse, until it got to a point when I couldn’t get my head off the pillow and thought I was dying. Then it got even worse, and I started wishing I was dying.

I’m much improved, but still a little wobbly. Doing anything (walking up the stairs, watering the garden) still leaves me feeling like I’ve just run a marathon, so I’ll be taking things slowly for a few days. On that note, if you want to email me this week, it’d be great if you could wait until next week if your mail isn’t blindingly urgent: I’ve got a backlog of hundreds and hundreds of mails to work through at the moment because I haven’t been able to check them while I’ve been off, and it’s going to take me a while to get through them all.

I’ll be working on a post about what we got up to with the amazing Pi community in Japan for later in the week, but for now, here’s something topical.

Our good friends at Adafruit have been working on a Tor proxy box based around a Pi, which directs your internet traffic through the Tor routing service. Every network packet you send is encrypted and decrypted multiple times, and each time this happens the packet is sent through a number of relays (like onion skins: Tor stands for The Onion Router), picked at random from the thousands that make up the Tor network, before reaching its intended destination. This makes it very hard for anyone to analyse your data to find out who you are, or where you are.

Tor routing is for anyone interested in confidentiality, internet freedom and privacy. It’s of enormous use for those who need to work on confidential business, or for those in places where internet traffic is monitored by governments or other bodies. It’s used to search for forbidden material like birth control, dissenting political voices or religious debate in places where a country is behind a firewall and traffic is strictly controlled (there are many users in mainland China); in the western world it’s used by many to protect personal data from marketers, and by those who worry their data is being snooped on. Activists and whistleblowers, for whom anonymity is important, use Tor. A healthy paranoia about your internet traffic is a good thing: just because you’ve got nothing to hide doesn’t mean that you’ve got nothing to fear. I would hate to be labelled a terrorist just because I express an interest in pressure cookers and book a lot of aeroplane tickets.

You can, of course, run a Tor proxy on any machine, but the particularly nice thing about Adafruit’s Onion Pi is its portability. This means that you’re not restricted to using it in one place; you can set it up in front of the router (it behaves as a WiFi hotspot) in the office you’re working from, in your hotel room or at your Mum’s house, connect to it from your phone or computer, and your IP address will be anonymised.

Be aware that using Tor will slow your browsing down (the packets of data are travelling by a longer and less direct route than you’re used to), and that it’s not a total guarantee of anonymity.

Adafruit have made a very easy to follow tutorial on making your own Onion Pi. You may well have all the parts you need (the only piece of kit I don’t already have kicking around the house is a WiFi adapter) at home; if you don’t, you can buy a box with everything you’ll need in it from them. A portion of every sale goes to the Tor Foundation.