The VICE Channels

    The Anonymous Tor Network Now Comes in a Box

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Photo via Flickr

    I have the Tor browser running on my computer, and it took me about two minutes to download. Once you're surfing through the network there are plenty of daunting technical options to dig into, but accessing the onion network for basic, everyday web use was as easy as clicking download, opening the program, and then struggling to remember all my no-longer-stored passwords.

    Still, Tor is best known as a niche tool for hackers, whistleblowers, criminals, activists, or folks with otherwise something to hide. To your average internet user, the covert network of relays and whatchamacallits can come off as too complex and intimidating to bother with—even as people are increasingly concerned with their online privacy in light of the NSA scandal.

    So goes the thinking behind Safeplug, a new hardware adapter that basically puts Tor in a box. It takes 60 seconds and 50 bucks to plug the privacy box into your router, and you’re good to go, the company claims. Like anonymous browsing for dummies.

    The adapter comes from hardware company Pogoplug, which announced its new product yesterday and hopes it will bring Tor to the mass market by offering more consumer-friendly access. "We want to just take what is currently available today to a more technical crowd and democratize it, making it easier to use for an average user," CEO Dan Putterman told GigaOM.

    Sure, more people using Tor would be great. Even though it's not 100 percent secure and anonymous, it does give a lot of control back to web users who are watching their privacy slip out of their grasp everyday. Also, the more people that join the network and volunteer to host a relay, the faster connection speeds will get, making Tor-based browsing less of a slow drag. To that point, you can opt to use your Safebox device as a relay, so it has the potential to strengthen the underground network if it is widely adopted.

    But as appealing as it is to plug in a little black box instead of downloading and running a hodgepodge of web-based security programs, the device isn't a privacy panacea. On its website, the Tor Project points out that accessing the web through Tor isn't in itself enough to assure anonymity; users can unwittingly leak information that identifies them through Flash plug-in or add-ons. Tor recommends disabling these, and offers a list of other tips and best-practices for secure browsing.

    Nor is the adapter necessarily easier to use than the downloadable Tor browser bundle. In both cases, you can also cherry-pick which sites to access through the hidden network by whitelisting "trusted" web pages—say, online streaming sites that are a pain to use with slower connection speeds. One small differentiation is that with the browser version of Tor, you have to download separate versions for your computer, tablet, and cell phone, while Safebox will anonymize traffic on any device that’s using wi-fi from the router the box it's hooked up to.

    Curiously, the folks at Pogoplug didn't work with or communicate with the Tor Project while developing their product with its open-source software. I reached out to Tor to gauge their thoughts on new hardware tool, and will update this post as soon as they respond.

    For its part, Safebox is looking to appeal to Joe and Jane Schmoes that would prefer to keep their IP address and web habits private—the same way you wouldn’t want government agencies or ad companies snooping around your home and watching your every move.