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Tor takes anonymity mobile with new smartphone OS

Keep the digital spies out of your mobile life with TAILS.


Patrick Howell O'Neill


A major new player is about to enter the mobile phone space. But ideally, you won’t even know they’re there.

The team behind Tor, the world’s leading online anonymity service, is developing an anonymous smartphone operating system.

Over 87 percent of the world’s population own mobile phones, making them a prime target for spy agencies around the world. Over the past year, as Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed the vast extent of the NSA’s global surveillance capabilities—which include collecting mass phone records and 200 million texts, installing spyware on laptops, as well as comprehensive monitoring of the Internet—and spurred a new global interest in privacy and security to combat the NSA’s eavesdropping.

Developers have released a number of high profile security mobile apps recently. But there are few if any real options for secure operating systems. Androids, iPhones, and the rest of the mobile heavyweight operating systems all broadcast countless details about their users’ identities. Even the Blackphone, the much-hyped new $629 privacy-centric mobile phone from Silent Circle, is still tied tightly to your identity.

To truly hide your identity on mobile, Tor is adapting the leading anonymous operating system for PCs, The Amnesic Incognito Live System (TAILS). It works by forcing all outgoing connections through the encrypted Tor network and blocking all non-anonymous connections. All of the applications included in the free downloadable system—for instance, a secure browser and various encryption tools—are aimed to provide strong anonymity to the user.  

And when you’re done using the OS, you can remove the USB stick and TAILS will leave absolutely no digital footprint on your Android or Ubuntu phone, a key drawback in many of today’s mobile security products. Tails is configured so that it doesn’t use the computer’s hard-disk and automatically  erases RAM used by the system. That’s why it’s called “amnesic.”

“TAILS is anonymity and incognito, leaving little to no record behind on the device on which it is booted,” Nathan Freitas, the project’s lead mobile phone hacker, wrote in an email to the Daily Dot. “This is very different than a Blackphone which is tied to an real identity via a mobile baseband, SIM card, and a subscription with Silent Circle, and so on.”

The new operating system will not be available to iPhone users, Freitas said. It’s “not really viable in a sustainable way on iOS,” Freitas said. “Too much battling Apple to be worth it.”

Using the powerful TAILS on your PC is deceptively simple. All it takes is a simple download and a USB stick, DVD, or SD card. You can load it up on any computer and find yourself in a secure, anonymous system that leaves no fingerprints after use.

The mobile phone version will aim to match that powerful functionality by booting from a USB drive or SD card, Freitas said. Of course, most mobile devices can’t boot for USB or SD card today. So until that becomes more widespread, the new TAILS will work through a simple rooting process, a procedure that gives the user total control over the phone. It requires just a few clicks in an Android that’s hooked up to your PC.

The new operating system will provide apps “configured for maximum privacy and anonymity,” Freitas explained. “[They] don’t leak data, [have] end-to-end encryption, etc.”

The goal of the new project is to allow users to have a stock Android phone  “with your normal social life, games, and what not” but that has the option to turn into a “maximum secure environment.”

Like Tor and TAILS, Freitas sees the new system being useful when going through border crossings, physical interrogations, protecting against data theft, or merely communicating about sensitive issues.

Freitas is a veteran in this space. As a developer for the Guardian Project, he’s has been involved in the creation of easy-to-use open source apps designed to free people from intrusion and surveillance. Freitas is also “the driving force” behind the development of Tor on Android (called Orbot) and Orweb, a privacy-enhanced mobile browser, according to the Tor project.

But none of that is as powerful as TAILS. Even the Guardian ROM, a secure version of Android 4.2.2, doesn’t provide the anonymity and leave-no-trace mentality that TAILS does. Though the new mobile TAILS will likely be borrowing from many of Guardian’s security-centric apps.

“We need to balance the maximum security and anonymity provided by TAILS with the usability needs of a mobile experience, as provided by Android or Ubuntu Touch,” Freitas said.

Tor, a $2 million per year nonprofit consisting of 30 developers spread out over 12 countries, is making a concerted expansion effort to put powerful, free, and simple privacy tools into the hands of everyone. It’s also, for instance, developing an anonymous instant messenger to accompany its browser software.

Moving full force into mobile, the fastest growing space in computing, is the project’s next logical step.

Photo by Phil Roeder/Flickr

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