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Beta testing for Tor's anonymous mobile OS begins this spring

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Last week we reported that the team behind Tor, the world’s leading online anonymity service, was developing a new anonymous mobile operating system for Android and Ubuntu tablets and smartphones.

Now we’ve learned more details on exactly how the system will work. The free OS will run entirely over Wi-Fi networks, use encrypted voice, video, and text messaging apps, and boast security features that can disable location tracking. This adds up to a robust mobile anonymity tool, and is an important step in the broader growth of digital anonymity.

Mobile computing is on a path to ubiquity around the globe, giving Internet access to a huge new chunk of humanity. Tor’s sustained effort to bring secure, useable anonymity services to these devices represents a conscious decision on the part of developers to open up the anonymous Internet to the entire world, whether it be a relatively tech illiterate man in Maryland or a Chinese woman whose only device is a mobile phone.

The Tor network and its family of anonymity programs is already used by a wide range of people. Journalists, activists, and whistleblowers use it next to militaries, governments, and businesses. Drug dealers, hackers, and child pornographers use it next to police and privacy-savvy citizens. And because of how the network is designed, every new user strengthens the anonymity of the entire network.

A disposable OS

Tor employees are already testing prototype devices now with the anonymous operating system. Nathan Freitas, the project’s lead developer, sent the Daily Dot emails from just such a device as we discussed what he was building. His team is focusing on the Nexus 7, a popular Android tablet, for their first test-runs.

And this spring, Tor will launch an “explorer” program which will distribute devices among a group of beta testers to collect feedback.

The new OS is a wholesale mobile adaptation of The Amnesic Incognito Live System (TAILS), the leading anonymous operating system for PCs. The system, which we've been calling TAILS Mobile, will be available for use on stock Android and Ubuntu products but will operate very differently than those devices normally do.

TAILS is a disposable operating system, also known as a “live system.” Whereas software like Windows is loaded up for the entire life of a device, TAILS lives on a USB or DVD. It’s easy to boot when you want anonymity and then just as easy to unload, leaving no trace whatsoever that it was ever there.

When TAILS Mobile is loaded up, a phone will no longer interact with mobile networks. The fundamental feature of TAILS is that it routes all connections through the anonymous Tor network and refuses all non-anonymous connections. Since this sort of anonymizer does not work on mobile networks, TAILS Mobile devices won’t be interacting with those networks whatsoever.

Instead, the new OS is focused purely on Wi-Fi communications. But don’t worry—as soon as you’re done using TAILS, you’ll be able to use everything on your tablet as normal. In fact, that’s the brilliance of TAILS. When it’s unloaded, it leaves no trace and the device functions as if TAILS was never there.

“The focus is on Wi-Fi-based, all IP based communications over Tor,” Freitas explained. “We will not be using mobile baseband radios, and in general we will focus on tablets or devices we can disable the mobile radio on.”

The phone will prevent the transmission of location data by randomizing the device’s MAC address, a unique device identifying number often assigned by the manufacturer. By obfuscating this address, TAILS aims to stop Wi-Fi tracking in public places like malls and airports.

Encrypted voice and text

Traditional text messages and phone calls cannot be anonymous, so Tor is nixing those in favor of secure alternatives to ward off eavesdroppers.

The OS will use a service called Ostel.co to support encrypted voice and video calls on mobiles and tablets. Ostel, which also works on desktops, was built by the Guardian Project, a group of mobile developers with a mission to provide secure mobile devices to journalists, activists, and everyday people for free.

Encrypted text messaging will be handled by ChatSecure, another free Guardian Project program that gives users free unlimited, private, and secure messaging with friends over popular messenger networks such as Facebook Chat, Google Talk, Hangouts, Jabber, Dukgo, and more.

The encryption, which takes place on the device, is handled by Off-the-Record Messaging, a leading strong encryption protocol that allows for identity authentication on top of encryption. Privacy activist groups such as Riseup, the Chaos Computer Club, Calyx, DuckDuckGo, and more will provide servers. The team also plans on adding support for additional secure chat applications like TextSecure 2.

“This is obviously not a mass market idea,” Freitas wrote, but then, neither is TAILS on the PC. But for those who do use it, TAILS is a powerful security tool.

And while it may never have mass-market potential, TAILS Mobile is an expansive idea. It comes as the Tor Project is launching several key initiatives aimed at expanding its user base and making its powerful capabilities accessible to everyone, whether they only have access to phones or are not particularly tech savvy.

In addition to the new mobile operating system, Tor is developing an easy-to-use anonymous instant messenger and a point-and-click Deep Web site publishing tool that promise to open the anonymous Internet up to an entirely new segment of the population.

Tor is now in the process of democratizing itself. And while it gives more users the power of anonymity, Tor is giving its own program and organization more social, political, and technical power than it has ever had.

Photo via Evan Blaser/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)