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An EFF-Led Challenge To Boost the Use of Internet Traffic Anonymizers

BY Becky Kazansky | Friday, July 15 2011

The Electronic Frontier Foundation — based in San Francisco and known for its advocacy in support of digital privacy measures — has been encouraging its supporters to aid activists around the world by putting their computers in service of a volunteer-run anonymizing online network called Tor.

Tor allows users to mask their IP addresses when their computer sends out traffic on the Internet by routing it through at least three other computers along the way. That's where the volunteers come in — by downloading and configuring Tor to serve as one of three types of relays, anyone can turn their Internet-connected machine into a node in Tor's traffic-anonymizing network. As you might expect, it was quite popular in Egypt at the start of the Jan. 25 Movement there earlier this year, put to use in attempts by activists to avoid government detection and control of their Internet access. Originally a project of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, today Tor has support from organizations like Human Rights Watch, Global Voices, and Reporters Without Borders.

The EFF's challenge looks to be a successful call to supporters, who, as of publication, reported setting up a total of 536 relays, surpassing EFF's goal of 500. What this means for the participants is, by EFF's own admission, a bit hazy.

As far as legality goes, setting up a relay presents variable amounts of risk, depending on which kind you volunteer to run — remember, three types of relays comprise the network. While, according to the EFF Tor Challenge site's explanation page, "middle relays" don't give away the owner as the source of traffic, the site warns that exit relay operators, who are pushing packets back out into the Internet at large, "should be prepared to deal with complaints, copyright takedown notices, and the possibility that their servers may attract the attention of law enforcement agencies.” The EFF suggests that running a "bridge" relay, which is a way of helping people access the Tor network even if their ISP is attempting to block access, is moderately less risky, in part because there is no central list of these relays.

Because there's no infrastructure in the Tor network to monitor or shut down activities of questionable legality, users can unwittingly end up relaying traffic for illicit transactions made in anonymized digital currency, though it's not known how common such transactions are.

The Tor Challenge, which began July 1st, concludes at the end of today.