We’re all being monitored online in some way – that’s no surprise or secret. Many of us, myself included are not particularly concerned about this for most day to day things. We might not be doing anything “wrong” by the laws of our country so we go about our online business without much of a second thought.
For many people around the world this is not the case. Numerous governments create environments where online freedom is curtailed and censorship rules. They may restrict access to news, communication tools or even specific topics by keyword and will often punish people who attempt to access such information.
For the last few months I’ve been experimenting with hosting Tor relays on some virtual private servers across the internet as a way of helping to provide channels for people to access information and communicate more freely.
What is Tor?
Simplistically Tor is a network that lets anyone create a secure and almost certainly untraceable connection to the internet that is safe from monitoring and censorship. For someone using Tor their computer connects to a Tor Relay which then sends their traffic on to a second relay which does the same again to a third before the traffic exits into the wider internet. For more details of how this works see torproject.org
Is it for bad people?
Again the tor project people have great examples of why Tor is not just about illegal or immoral activity. If someone wants to use Tor to do something “evil” then they can. They could also just use the regular internet via free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. If you think Tor is wrong then you had best also campaign against every cafe, airport, hotel, bus station, restaurant and mall that offers free Wi-Fi because someone could be using their internet for bad things also.
A Tor Relay
For the Tor network to function it needs people who host relays which function as the links in the chain that relay user traffic around the internet. There are two primary types of relay depending on the preference of the person hosting. Plain or non-exit relays form either the first or second step in the chain described above. They either are the first step in the chain for a user or may be the “middle man” between the first relay for the user and the exit-relay. Exit Relays are the third and final step in the chain. They receive the traffic from the “middle man” relay and then send it to the wider internet. At the time of writing there were 7275 active relays and 1046 exit relays.
Exit Relays are considered to be risky to run as the traffic from Tor users appears as if it is coming from your server which can lead to complaints if there are people using it for dodgy activities. There are some useful Tips for Running an Exit Node with Minimal Harassment available which will help avoid some of the common issues.
My Tor relays are virtual computers like any other that are hosted on shared infrastructure (in the cloud as some might say). Having more exit relays in the Tor network means it performs faster and can support more users. Diversity of relays also reduces the chances that enough of a tor “circuit” could be compromised by someone trying to monitor users. I have hosted relays now with both Scaleway and OVH without any major problems and both cost well under $10 AUD a month. There has been the odd email notifying of a complaint but once I let them know the server is running a Tor exit relay they have been quite understanding and there has been no need for further action.
How you can help
While the people at Tor Project will accept donations towards the cause, a truly positive contribution to the Tor Network would be to run a relay yourself (preferably exit node).
I hope to provide a more detailed post in the future with more tips and information and have even considered setting up a service to host relays on behalf of people for the cost of hosting if they are not technically comfortable to configure themselves. Will see how my exit nodes go over the next few months.