Chris Dougherty, Contributor
Why stay anonymous online? In today’s society there are people and automated devices that are recording your deepest, most private thoughts and activities. Each day we voluntarily divulge the most intimate details of our lives through social networking accounts, email, banking apps, online games and more. In addition, governments and corporations can censor and block our traffic based on whatever standards are in place that day.
Government agencies, hackers and sophisticated bot networks are capturing every piece of digital data that we transmit through all of our Internet-connected gadgets. Smartphones, Smart TVs, computers, tablets, and so much more…they are all vulnerable, nothing is safe these days. Even your old clam-shell phone isn’t safe. This is because many phone providers route your calls over media using the Internet Protocol at some point within their network. For example, long distance providers transfer calls over VoIP all the time.
Whether you’re browsing the Web, signing up for a new online game, or simply checking your email, you are constantly leaving tracks and giving away information to anyone with access and the knowledge to analyze the traffic. Once the data is compiled the attacker can build an incredibly accurate profile of not only your online life but your real-world life as well.
I know, most people say, “Why would hackers want to hack into my life? I am not that important.” You have to understand that these “intruders into our lives” are scanning huge blocks of Internet addresses at a time. They don’t care who you are. Your computer is simply another target IP address as they scan through thousands of computers and devices in their search for more information. Once collected they take all the information and funnel it into databases where they can search through it later for high-valued loot.
Don’t believe me? Just read the following two stories about what our own government does:
So, the big question is, how can you stay anonymous online? Free from government censorship and potential eavesdropping from some hacker or three-letter government agency that wants to invade your privacy while you use your computer. In comes Whonix, the Anonymous Operating System!
Use Whonix, The Anonymous Operating System, Stay Anonymous Online
Whonix is a free, general purpose computer operating system based on Virtual Box, Linux and Tor. The purpose of Whonix is to allow Internet users the ability to stay anonymous online. This is most beneficial to users in regimes that censor and monitor access to the Internet, but it can also be used by anyone who values their privacy, or doesn’t want their activities tracked online.
By design, IP address leaks are meant to be impossible while using Whonix. The developers claim even malware with admin privileges can’t find the Whonix Workstation’s real IP address or location. This is because Whonix consists of two (virtual) computers. One machine acts as a gateway or router and runs only Tor, a sophisticated anonymity software. This machine is called the Whonix-Gateway. The other machine, which called the Whonix-Workstation, is on a completely isolated network that only allows Internet connections to be routed through the Whonix-Gateway.
Tor, the technology on which Whonix is built, is a free software, along with an open network consisting of thousands of computers located around the world. Together they strive to provide anonymity for individuals accessing the Internet. The Tor Project helps you defend against a form of network surveillance, known as traffic analysis, that threatens everyone’s personal freedom and privacy.
Tor helps to reduce the risks of both simple and advanced traffic analysis by distributing your Internet requests over several places on the Internet, so no single point can link you to your destination. The idea is similar to using a hard-to-follow series of roads while driving in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you.
Whonix automatically sets up an isolated network environment where your virtual “Workstation” can perform all normal Internet related tasks such as checking email, browsing web sites, blogging, connecting to corporate VPNs, etc. However all of that outbound traffic is then routed in such a way that it can only pass through your virtual “Gateway”, which encrypts the packets and sends them over several hops on the TOR network prior to landing at their final destination.
|How Whonix Works: Figure 1|
Once your traffic leaves the Whonix Gateway it is routed directly through the TOR network. Instead of taking a direct route from source to destination, data packets on the Tor network take a random path through several relays, so no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it’s going. The relays even take additional steps to erase your tracks periodically along the way.
|How Whonix Works: Figure 2 – Routing Through TOR|
In the event that the Workstation user initiates a request to a new website or Internet resource, the Gateway simply selects an alternate path through the TOR network as seen in Figure 3.
|How Whonix Works: Figure 3 – Using An Alternate TOR Path|
There is a bit of a caveat to this system, however. As indicated by the red dotted-lines in the images above, the last hop in the TOR network passes the traffic in the clear to the final destination. One of the primary functions of this computer, as an exit node, is to decrypt the data packets before they are passed off to their final destination. This means this exit node could be vulnerable to a man-in-the-middle attack, or it could have even been placed there for the specific purpose of monitoring exit traffic by a hacker or government agency. While the exit node would still have no information regarding the IP address or location of the original Workstation user, it would know the type of Internet request that they sent to the destination server.
This scenario can be averted by using SSH tunnels or a VPN on top of the TOR network. One would only have to install the appropriate software on the Whonix Workstation in order to provide an end-to-end encryption solution for the traffic. Another method to bypass the man-in-the-middle scenario would be to employ the use of TOR Private Bridges or Private Exit Nodes.
It is important to note however that Whonix can be effectively used by most people right out of the box for web browsing, blogging and private conversations.
Once VirtualBox has been downloaded and installed you can download the Whonix-Workstation and the Whonix-Gateway packages from SourceForge:
Once downloaded, just import the machine files into VirtualBox as-is and start them up, you don’t need to change any settings…also be sure to start the Whonix-Gateway machine before firing up the Workstation image.
The default login credentials for both virtual machines are as follows:
Once the images have completed the boot process you can login and run the “whonixcheck” command from the CLI (command line interface) in order to verify proper connectivity to the TOR network. The Workstation output should look similar to the following (click image to enlarge):
|How Whonix Works: Figure 4 – Workstation output from the “whonixcheck” command.|
Be sure to watch for my article in the next few days detailing step-by-step instructions on how to install VirtualBox and Whonix on your computer. Let me know what you think of this anonymity solution in the comments below…
Chris Dougherty is a hacker and online security expert. Please visit his blog, www.VirtualThreat.com, for more excellent news and information about protecting yourself in cyberspace.