As concern about internet privacy grows and grows, more and more people are actively seeking to browse the web anonymously. There are various ways to avoid being identified or tracked on the internet, although, in fact, “attempt to avoid” might often be more appropriate. Online anonymity can often feel like a fleeting goal, and a problem as complex as online privacy has no solution that is bulletproof under all circumstances.
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Besides rather simple options such as proxy services or virtual private networks (VPNs), there are other services that you can use in order to hide your surfing habits from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), government, or the very websites you’re visiting. Let’s look at the benefits and downsides of three easy-to-use anonymity networks – Tor, I2P, and Freenet.
Tor – which is occasionally referred to as “Onionland” because of its use of onion routing, with its encapsulation of network traffic in layer upon layer of encryption – is the best known and most widely used network other than the surface web. The Tor network is made up of entry, transit and exit nodes through which a user's communication passes until it reaches its destination. The many hoops and the encryption used in each of them make it almost impossible to track or analyze a communication.
The Tor network is estimated to have an average of 200,000 users, making it the biggest anonymous network at the moment. In a way, its popularity is a boon for users, as the Tor browser is very easy to use and supports many languages and various platforms, including Linux, Windows and even Android. In addition, browsing is relatively fast and consumes relatively few resources.
Nevertheless, Tor is still a network of anonymous proxies, which are often overpopulated. It is very useful for traditional browsing, visiting websites and accessing unindexed content, but it might not be the best option for other kinds of communications. Also, as shown over the years, it is not a magic solution. In other words, there have been scenarios when your identity can be unmasked. In addition, recent ESET research uncovered cybercriminals distributing unofficial, trojanized copies of the Tor Browser with the intent of stealing from their victims.
The Invisible Internet Project (I2P) is an anonymous, decentralized network that also allows its users and applications to browse anonymously. Unlike the onion routing used by Tor, communication on I2P is likened to garlic, with each message being a clove and a group of them being a bulb. This way, with I2P a number of packets (or messages) are sent instead of just one, and they go through different nodes. It also uses one-way entry and exit tunnels, so that a query and a reply take different routes. Furthermore, within each tunnel there is onion routing similar to Tor's.
Consequently, with I2P it's even more complicated to analyze traffic than with Tor or a traditional VPN, since it not only uses various nodes and tunnels, but it also sends a number of packets, not just one.
The main advantage of I2P is that it can be used for all the activities we carry out on the Internet, since it's compatible with most apps, such as browsers, torrent and other P2P (peer-to-peer) tools, mail, chat, games and many more. In addition, the project's documentation is very clear and comprehensive, allowing you to adapt its API for any application.
However, as it is not as popular a network as Tor. It doesn't yet have as high a volume of users (and so fewer players to share the load), meaning that browsing is sometimes slower.
Freenet is the oldest network of the three considered here, having been launched in 2000. Freenet is designed as an unstructured P2P network with non-hierarchical nodes among which information is shared. Like Tor and I2P, communication travels between different entry, transit and exit nodes.
Freenet's purpose is to store encrypted documents that can only be accessed if you know the associated key, thereby preventing them from being found and censored. It offers anonymity both to those who post information and to those who download it.
Among its main benefits, Freenet has strong privacy and anonymity controls that allow users to browse websites, search or read forums, and publish files anonymously. Furthermore, being a P2P network, it is the best of the three for publishing and sharing anonymous content. Nevertheless, that same functionality has the downside in that every user has to store the content on their own hardware in order to share it, so it requires a large amount of disk space and resources.
Which one, then?
As each network was developed for different use cases and purposes, their features vary. Tor and I2P cannot compete with Freenet's durability, whereas the latter does not support music and video streaming. On the other hand, I2P offers great flexibility and can easily be adapted to any application, but even so, there is no better proxy system than Tor. Arguably the best approach is to learn how to use all of them, and then choose one most suitable for each situation.