Tor and Snowflakes: How You Can Be Part of the Digital Privacy Solution

The Calyx Institute on 2021-08-23

By Brandon S.

Imagine this: You boot up your computer or smartphone and want to read the news on a site like The New York Times or NPR. You type in the web address but instead of being routed to your destination, you instead are met with a page notifying you that you are blocked from entering that site.

Or imagine this: You’re a journalist writing on human rights abuses. Every time you try to communicate with survivors online, you find that many are worried about government surveillance, monitoring, and tracking. Whistleblowers are reluctant to communicate without assurances their IP address can’t be tracked to their location. Internet users in some areas may not be able to access your content due to regional content blocking.

Or this scenario, all too common: Imagine every time you visit nearly any website, websites like Google and Amazon track and gather information on you that can be shared with advertisers and beyond.

Some of these scenarios may seem strange, and others all too familiar, but they’re all rooted in the same problem: Every time we use the internet, we are making a tradeoff in which we gain access to information while giving much of our own away, including our location, name, and our browsing history. For some, this tradeoff could mean targeted advertising. For others, the consequences can include harassment, imprisonment, and even death.

There are many digital tools that can make it safe — or at least safer — to access information and communicate freely online. If you’re already be familiar with privacy options like VPNs and encrypted messaging services like Signal, you should also try The Onion Router, aka Tor (torproject). Tor is open network that routes your internet traffic to help you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.

When using the Tor network, your traffic is routed between three different servers, called nodes. Each node only knows the identity of the node before it, so once your traffic has made three “hops” between 3 unrelated nodes all over the world, there’s no way it can be traced back to you. The Tor network is made up of thousands of volunteers running Tor nodes — including us here at The Calyx Institute, running 15 nodes and planning on creating more in the future!

Tor is designed to protect the user’s identity, location, and browsing history while circumventing any additional censorship barriers they may face. Third-party trackers and ads are unable to follow your internet use and your cookies and history are automatically cleared when you finish browsing. Tor also prevents anyone watching your connection from seeing what website you visit — all they can see is that you are using Tor. All this makes accessing sites your home network may have blocked not only possible but safe, secure, and private.

As privacy tools grow and develop, so do tools to monitor, track, and censor internet access. Some countries now have the ability to recognize and stop Tor traffic, shutting down the user’s only remaining connection to “banned” sites including news, social media, and others. In response, privacy defenders have developed a new add-on to stop Tor traffic from being recognized on its way to the network. This add-on, called pluggable transports, disguise Tor traffic as it passes between the user and Tor. As a result, Tor traffic will appear to be “innocent” or typical traffic instead of traffic bypassing censorship.

Tor’s newest pluggable transport system, Snowflake, is composed of three components: volunteers running Snowflake proxies, Tor users that want to connect to the internet, and a broker who connects snowflake proxies to users. Each Snowflake proxy connects the user’s Internet to the IP address of a Tor node to route their traffic, but looks just like an innocent message to anyone watching. The proxies are “lightweight” (aka easy to run) and short-lived just like snowflakes, hence the name.

Snowflake proxies are run by volunteers all over the globe who, through the use of Tor’s web-browser extension, make the Tor network accessible to Internet users in countries where Tor is the only way to access vital news and communications outlets. The Snowflake system is complex, but in today’s cat-and-mouse game of censorship and circumvention, those complexities are what help users in the most heavily censored areas navigate around censorship and monitoring.

If you’re in a country that has uncensored access to the internet, and you want to help people in around the world access the internet more freely, becoming a Tor proxy is very easy! Tor has created a Snowflakes browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox users. By adding the extension to your browser, you help route Tor traffic. By setting up a proxy you help ensure Snowflake traffic is not monitored or controlled. When doing so, your computer routes Tor traffic. You will see virtually no drain on your own device and have no liability for the traffic that your computer routes.

For some, Tor might like a double-edged sword. If Tor enables anonymous internet use for good reasons, doesn’t it also open up the possibility of using Tor for criminal activity too? In the words of the Tor Project’s FAQ, “Criminals can already do bad things. Since they’re willing to break laws, they already have lots of options available that provide better privacy than Tor provides.” As well, what one country defines as a crime may be defined in another country as no big deal. Taking Tor away from the world won’t stop criminals, but it will endanger whistleblowers, journalists, human rights defenders, and average people trying to avoid detection from abusive governments or partners.

As with all anti-censorship tools, Tor is not a perfect system. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and other powerful actors are in a constant struggle to combat tools like Tor. You can picture this as a cat-and-mouse game, or a game of tug of war with censors on one end and anti-censorship developers on the other, yanking the internet back and forth. This struggle will continue forever unless we are able to collectively challenge the way our internet is run, who has access to it, who profits from it, and who is held accountable for abuses and censorship online. However, those who wish to use the internet to abuse, track, and sell data are never far behind. We must continue to invest in privacy systems — and new systems of using the internet as a whole.

The Calyx Institute is committed to creating tools and finding ways to make sure our lives are private and safe from bad actors and government censors. Here at the Calyx Institute, we gladly support The Tor Project by hosting multiple Tor nodes to make anonymized data run faster, better, stronger through the network. We do so to ensure the internet is a place that journalists, human rights defenders, and everyday citizens can access the information they need without fear of being tracked, monitored, or limited. If you’re interested in supporting online privacy, please consider donating to The Tor Project and becoming a contributing member of the Calyx Institute to help fund the work that we do.

For more information on how Tor works and how you can use Tor to protect your online activity, check out their website torproject.org, their Medium torproject and find them on Twitter @torproject. For more information on the Calyx Institute, visit us at our website calyxinstitute.org, or say hi on Twitter @calyxinstitute!