Using the web anonymously by means of Tor and VPNs to get around an oppressive country’s surveillance and restrictive filters (EG Iran and China’s “Great Firewall”), to blow whistles, to go to humanitarian websites and left-wing news outfits, to have the peace of mind that comes with privacy in light of the mountain of Snowden revelations, these are compelling needs for Tor. And because some of us are good natured and want to facilitate that for others, running a Tor server or exit node on our computer is a compelling urge.
But due to the nature of anonymity and the Internet, if you use Tor, your innocent free-speech-needing traffic is lumped into the same pile of bytes as child pornography and drug dealing. Your traffic is under elevated scrutiny by governments and law enforcement and in the US for example just using Tor is grounds to spy on you without a warrant. Also, many Tor nodes out there are running old versions of Tor that have known vulnerabilities, and many of these servers, maybe even most of them, are under the control of cooperating governments. Not to mention many websites automatically block Tor users because traffic from Tor exit nodes is often malicious. So it’s dangerous to use Tor for any purpose.
And it’s ultra dangerous to facilitate Tor use by running your own Tor server because once you light it up, your IP address immediately begins to appear to be dashing through very illegal websites, it appears to be your own personal traffic, not that of strangers from around the world whom you do not know, and you may be liable for it. Running a Tor server, even for Good, appears to be categorically self-destructive. It’s a good way to lose the freedom you’re trying to share with others. This ugly side of Tor is the side of Tor most people associate with Tor. Tor’s usage and its reputation is plagued by an extraordinarily heavy a saturation evil.
It appears Google and the University of Washington came up with a solution that might work: Combine this sort of secret, protected, unrestricted and anonymous data routing techniques with a social element. Instead of hopping onto the large Tor network either to browse privately and/or to let others do through your machine, you may soon be able to use a Chrome and Firefox extension that enables you and people you associate with to create a Tor-ish network by invitation only to those you trust not to use your connection for illegal things or saturating your bandwidth with torrents and unnecessary Youtubing and drug dealing. If you’ve got a buddy in Pakistan (God help him), with this tool you may enable him to tweet (I’m guessing that country blocks Twitter) about all the hell that surrounds him without [as much] threat of reprisal from his government, and you don’t have to worry about the feds breaking your balls, or at least that’s the idea.
Though getting a lot of attention, it’s in private beta I don’t know how exactly (or even vaguely) it will help you connect your friends and family, possibly involving email, Facebook and Google+ circles. I don’t know if it uses Tor’s onion routing techniques or I2P or something completely different, I don’t know how easy it will be for governments to suppress it or how long hackers will take to compromise it, I just know that Google announced it and I with this I think they are more likely to dazzle than disappoint. If this interests you, if you want to watch a cute video about it or you want to try to get a piece of the private beta (including its source code), fire up uproxy.org.