I noticed in the last couple months that the IP block that my Grande Communications connection gets assigned an IP from suddenly switched from a 24. to a 65. and subtle things started happening.

The other day I was trying to connect to a SIP PBX so I could volunteer to do call-screening for a local radio station in order to free the producer up for important projects. We got everything hooked up but no luck. My gut kept saying some ports were being blocked upstream so people are forced to use their phone service (which is VOIP), but of course Grande support denied any such thing. The producer and I are both fairly network and system savvy and pretty much eliminated all possible causes aside from upstream tampering.

Today especially, I’ve noticed several sites not be available when they were perfectly fine over Tor, like the Wired article about anti-Islam nutters and http://www.iheartradio.com . To be fair, I double-checked DNS connectivity (I use my own recursive caching resolver which talks directly to the root servers everyone else does rather than go through my ISP’s middle man), browser fail by using IE, Opera and Firefox and upstream Internet fail with sites like http://isup.me just to be sure, but if I can’t get to the IP and tcp port, it’s being blocked somewhere. I logged into a Linux shell account over at Slicehost and they come up fine. VERY obvious I’m being blocked somewhere.

Unfortunately I don’t use Flash over Tor, mostly because I’m too lazy to reconfigure it every time I download a new updated Tor. Flash is easy to deliver malicious payloads over which is why they do that. I could care less since I know I’m monitored 6 ways to Sunday anyway and I keep bank and personal stuff on a separate box. I like to flood Tor with lots of “legit” browser activity just to help them out and help obfuscate benevolent activity that evil Feds might be trying to surveil.

So now I’m having enough problems watching videos I want to see and disseminate to others and will have to use other proxies. Ah well.

I figured I would gin up a post about how to use Tor through the Vidalia package which includes a privacy-modifed version of Firefox already configured to use Tor. You just need to download the executable for your operating system (Windows, Mac or Linux), run that to install then run Vidalia and you’re in business. If you want to get ninja, you can run a live-CD Linux system after removing your hard drive then run Tor off of a USB drive you can quickly throw in the fireplace or flush down the toilet. I’m not worried about getting vanned so I don’t bother, but FYI. Actually it looks like there’s a linux distro just for using Tor on a USB or CD, Tails.

Once you click “Start Tor” in the folder you installed it in, it’ll open up a Firefox browser preconfigured to use the search engine startpage.com . If you know your IP address, try comparing it to the one that comes up when you go to whatsmyip.net , for example. The first page that comes up should be a check page saying that Tor is functioning properly, but it’s fun to see what kind of zany IP you get. You can also check the map in Vidalia network map to see what “exit nodes” you are using. At any time you can reset connections and use a different one. I was an exit node operator (of “torrential”) for about 3 years from 2006-2009 and believe strongly in this project. Come to think of it, that might explain some of the schizophrenia I’ve been getting from would-be “friends” and associates… Hehe…

Anyway, here’s a visual diagram on how Tor works:

Once on the tor network, you will also have access to .onion addresses, the Tor hidden network. The Hidden Wiki is probably the best “portal” type site to informative onion sites.

Make no mistake, this is the Wild West of the Internet. You are likely to see something that offends you. Welcome to freedom and personal responsibility. You don’t have to browse .onion sites at all to use Tor to protect you from, say, the Chinese government torturing you for a blog post or the US government putting you in a hole in Guantanamo for providing some much-needed transparency in the State Dept. It’s also useful to see if your ISP or their upstream provider is blocking something you know is available.

Another use is to check websites that people you don’t necessarily trust give you. A lot of crackers and online criminals will use this method to get you to disclose your IP address so they can try to crack your computer – they run the website so they just watch the logs for your IP address.

If you’re not concerned so much with anonymity and just want to try, say, seeing what kind of advertising is on a website based on source country or to see how a media outlet might change their message based on source country, you can just use a regular proxy. There are plenty of business and criminal justice applications for both Tor and proxy usage in general as you may have guessed. The best proxy list I’ve found is at http://samair.ru . It’s been around for at least a decade. You might have to go through a few to get a working one, though.

In either case, do not send any personal information like bank accounts and SSNs. If it’s not encrypted over SSL, it won’t be over these either.

I’d like to close this by giving the middle finger to Grande Communications and their director of engineering.

P.S. If you find Tor useful, be sure to donate to the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation). They are tireless crusaders for freedom on the Internet and go after any kind of legislation that restricts Internet usage like SOPA and PIPA. I first found out about them in 1992 on the bulletin board (an actual cork one, not a computer one) in my university’s comp. sci. dept. I thought it was neatest thing ever, and I have been a supporter to some degree or another since then. They recognized that the Internet (well at the time it was a loose collection of various academic and government networks of various types) was going to be the last bastion of free expression and open communication left in an increasingly totalitarian state and alerted (along with EPIC and CPSR) people on things like Carnivore and the Clipper chip as well as potential dangers and misuses of computer networking.