Anonymous networks such as the well-known Tor Project, function by routing user traffic through a series of encrypted relays, making it extremely difficult to trace the original source of the data. This protects user identities and online activities from surveillance and data collection.
There are quite a few more such anonymous networks other than Tor, with their own unique design, each tackling the problem of anonymity.
Anonymous networks are an important tool for protecting your online identity, as well as aiding in circulating data over the internet through censorship-resistant means. They are key to protecting free speech and privacy rights. If you can’t track the source of the data, there is nobody to censor. This is why anonymity is essential for free speech.
The networks I will talk about in this article are: Tor, I2P and Lokinet.
The most popular anonymous network. Most people, when they think of anonymity on the internet, they probably think of Tor. You see it in movies, news and other over-sensationalized media, as a tool used by various criminals. While Tor has its fair share of users, it is extensively used by journalists and human rights activists to protect themselves from state surveillance.
Besides protecting users from surveillance, it is also used to circumvent censorship and advertiser tracking. Tor has both hidden services under onion addresses1, and exit nodes which are utilized to access normal, surface web services (referred to as clearnet). Tor is most widely used in conjunction with the Tor Browser for private and secure web browsing on both onion sites and clearnet sites.
A great option with few compromises for those who need privacy & security fast, in a reliable and widely adopted manner.
To tackle network-side issues, Tor has what they call “directory authorities”. These are servers that maintain a list of active Tor relays. Their purpose is to maintain the health of the network and to kick off any malicious actors. While some say they make the network centralized, they help a lot to prevent attacks.
Tor, by design, is rather slow, because for users to contribute back to the network, must voluntarily become a relay. In the sections below, there are anonymous networks that try to fix this through design, or by incentivizing users.
I2P, while similar to Tor, has a few important technical differences. In contrast to Tor, every user becomes a node that routes traffic, this is different from Tor where your participation is voluntary. There are performance metrics done in real-time to ensure the best connection, and everything is distributed between the peers of the network so that everyone contributes and makes the whole network stronger. Because of this, theoretically, I2P has the potential to surpass Tor in terms of speed through these features, if given enough users.
A weakness of I2P’s decentralized design is that attacking relays can’t be removed from the network, and there have been attacks on the network3.
A blockchain anonymous network that utilizes Oxen, their cryptocurrency coin, to encourage the hosting of reliable non-malicious nodes through financial rewards. The development team claims that this incentive, and the expensive stake of coins that you need to register a node will lead to a substantial decrease of Sybil attacks4. Oxen is based on the Monero code and implements Proof of Stake5 instead of Proof of Work6.
Lokinet is different from I2P and Tor by employing a VPN tunnel to facilitate a connection to the onion network, which technically simplifies the use of it.
Lokinet’s development team is rather small, and the expensive stake of hosting a node might drive away any potential network contributors who have to dedicate time and resources to gain a profit, if they do. The lack of eyes on the project might also promote the creation of unintended vulnerabilities.
The world is implementing more surveillance and tracking with each passing day, and technology is becoming more advanced to facilitate such nefarious use. Governments are trying to pass surveillance laws, intelligence agencies are illegally spying on their own citizens as well as the citizens of foreign countries, and such actions sometimes result in the deaths or imprisonment of journalists and human rights activists. One cannot predict what will become illegal in the future, so protect yourself now to save yourself the trouble.
While anonymous networks do help a lot, they only protect you on the networking stack. Practice proper security practices and think of them as another tool in your toolbox.
I hope that this overview has given you a general idea on the state of anonymous networks, and that you will adopt the use of them for your internet activities.
A Tor onion address is a specific type of URL used to access websites on the Tor network, offering enhanced privacy and anonymity. Unlike standard URLs, it often ends with “.onion” and can only be accessed using the Tor Browser. ↩︎
A Sybil attack involves a single adversary controlling multiple nodes in a network, primarily to subvert the network’s functionality. The attacker can create a large number of pseudonymous identities and uses them to gain a disproportionately large influence. Commonly targets peer-to-peer networks and distributed systems. ↩︎
Proof of Stake (PoS) is a consensus algorithm used in blockchain networks. Unlike Proof of Work, which requires computational effort to validate transactions and create new blocks, PoS allows validators to create blocks and confirm transactions based on the number of coins they hold and are willing to “stake” as collateral. ↩︎
Proof of Work (PoW) is a consensus algorithm used in blockchain networks. It requires nodes to perform computationally intensive tasks to validate transactions and create new blocks. The first node to solve the task gets the right to add the new block to the blockchain and is rewarded with cryptocurrency. This method is energy-intensive but highly secure. ↩︎