A London- and Zurich-based team of university security researchers says it has developed a method of anonymous web browsing that works at the same speed as ‘browsing exposed in public'.
The high-speed masking technology is known as Hornet - High-speed Onion Routing at the Network Layer.
Deeper than ‘simple' private
Variously known as incognito browsing (Google Chome), private browsing (Apple Safari) and InPrivate browsing with Tracking Protection (Internet Explorer), these search options are intended to prevent other users from seeing webpages that you've visited and the content that you've viewed.
The research team is working a layer deeper than this and says it is capable of encrypting data multiple times in multiple layers to shield users' searches from the eyes of authorities.
Other technologies in this space such as the original The Onion Router (or Tor) technique have used ‘relay networks' to obfuscate and conceal a user's location while browsing.
While this type of anonymous browsing technology logically slows down the ability to search, Hornet is said to be able to transmit data at a speedy 93GB per second.
Hornet is designed as a low-latency onion routing system that operates at the network layer thus enabling a wide range of applications. The system uses only symmetric cryptography for data forwarding yet requires no per-flow state on intermediate nodes.
Safety through speed
Hornet is structured with a user limitation control to ultimately restrict the total capacity of user searches and hence ensure faster speeds.
While so-called Tor techniques have been notoriously susceptible to hacking, Hornet's user limitations (and therefore its speed) are argued to provide safer passage of data before a hacker has time to intercept.
Writing on The Daily Dot, Patrick Howell O'Neill has explained how Hornet aims for more scalability and efficiency.
“[The technology] pushes traffic through its network by having the intermediate relay nodes avoid keeping the per-session state (for instance, encryption keys and routing information) and pushing that task to the nodes on either end of the connection. Without that task, nodes can theoretically forward traffic more quickly to a larger number of clients.”
While there are clearly social responsibility and nation security questions thrown up by a project like Hornet, the technology is not available to the public at this time.
IBM identity mixer
"This is impressive research that works well together with the privacy-preserving authentication called Identity Mixer that we have developed at IBM Research - Zurich,” said Jan Camenisch, cryptographer and privacy researcher, IBM Research.
Speaking from Zurich to SCMagazineUK.com this morning, Camenisch commented that Identity Mixer uses a validated credential to enable users to prove properties about themselves without revealing anything about themselves.
“So for example, [it would ask proof] that they are over 16 when streaming an online movie. Uniquely, the credential issuer cannot trace the patterns of the user, keeping them in control of their data. So combined with work in this paper, Identity Mixer can enable users to use their certified credentials to compete a transaction," he said.
Jaromir Horejsi, senior malware analyst at Avast also spoke to SCMagazineUK.com today to restate that when using a ‘standard Internet connection' without any kind of privacy protection, authorities and attackers can spy on you and even intercept and manipulate your communications.
Journalists, activists… and private users
“It is important to remember that every system, like Tor, can be abused by cyber-criminals, (however) there are many legitimate uses them. Networks such as Tor are essential for journalists, activists and even private users who want to transfer content as it helps them remain anonymous and to protect their sensitive data,” said Horejsi.
“From my experience, Tor is quite slow, which can be limiting. As the researchers claim that browsing via their new anonymity network will be much faster, I am looking forward to trying out their network in the future,” he added.
A legal viewpoint
Lawyer (attorney), Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) and Certified Information Privacy Technologist (CIPT) Paul Lanois contacted SCMagazineUK.com after hearing this story discussed on Twitter.
Lanois thinks that it is “obvious” that private browsing will face different reactions depending on the country. He says that some nations will openly suppress such systems, such as China which actively prevents access to Tor entrance nodes, or Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates blocking access to the Tor website.
“But even hidden services are not completely protected: in November 2014, Europol announced that they arrested 17 people and seized more than 400 sites using the ".onion" domain used by Tor (Operation Onymous),” said Lanois.
“As a principle, if a state wants to access servers located in a foreign country in order to take them down or seize their assets, the consent of the other county is usually required, unless there is a legal basis for the requesting country not to do so (eg international convention). There may be other issues, for example if the physical server is seized and such server contains data belonging to other persons not related to the investigation (ie situation of a shared server),” he added.