For those concerned about privacy, Torpark, a free, anonymous Internet browser based on Firefox 1.5 that does not require installation on a desktop, is a godsend. Released by an international group of security experts and human rights workers known as Hacktivismo, Torpark enables you to circumvent content filters and other restrictions imposed on your current Internet access by accessing a randomized, worldwide proxy network that hides your actual IP address. If you are already familiar with Firefox, Torpark should be easy to use, and you'll welcome the included security extensions. But use Torpark's anonymized network sparingly, say, for Internet searches only, then disable it when it's not needed; otherwise, you'll grow frustrated with Torpark's slow-loading Web pages.
Setup and installation
Our installation of Torpark from CNET Download.com was fast and caused no incidents. You cannot launch Torpark while Firefox is up and running; it's either one or the other. You can also launch Torpark from a USB drive, which is how we tested it, allowing use on computers that would not otherwise allow software installations.
The Torpark interface is basically a skinned version of Firefox 1.5 with a few added buttons, although you can change the skin back to the familiar orange Firefox theme if you want. There's the Tor Network button that allows you to enable or disable the anonymized Tor network, presumably for speed issues. Another way to improve speed is to use the Flush Circuit button, which automatically disables then reestablishes an anonymized Tor network.
Unfortunately, we were unable to find our current Firefox bookmarks within Torpark, nor could we import them (we could only import bookmarks from Internet Explorer). Perhaps this will be addressed in a future release.
What's unique about Torpark is not the browser, which includes a few Firefox security extensions, such as Adblock and NoScript, but rather the network behind it. Whenever you log on to the Internet, your ISP assigns you an IP address, which can be recorded by every Web site you visit. Over the Tor server network, all Internet traffic bounces through what are called onion routers--hence the use of an onion as the desktop icon for Torpark--to create distributed, encrypted circuits with ever-changing IP addresses. What that means to you is that Torpark sends your browser's requests through an ad hoc proxy network of servers and routers located around the world, each knowing only where the message came from and where it was sent, but not the entire path of the connection, resulting in an IP address that's different from the one assigned by your ISP.
Sounds bad for law enforcement, right? Well, the bad guys already know how to cloak their Internet traffic, so any concerns that Tor circuits may be aiding criminals is a bit simplistic. Supported by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and other privacy rights organizations, Tor circuits are designed to promote free speech, allowing users in countries with oppressive censorship laws to search for alternative information by using IP addresses outside their own country. But use of Tor circuits is not without controversy. Recently, several Tor servers in Germany were seized as part of a child pornography investigation, and many college students, looking to circumvent university controls on downloading copyrighted material, have already discovered Torpark.
Depending upon the time of day, your connection speed, and the number of Tor users worldwide, you may not be able to use Torpark at all. After 90 seconds of trying to establish a connection, Torpark provides the following options: keep waiting, wait and don't ask again, restart Tor, or quit Torpark. We tried launching Torpark at several different times over three days and found that most of the time we could establish a Tor circuit; however, one time we simply could not, no matter how long we waited. The established circuits themselves are very interesting. Your final Tor IP address (the address the Web site sees) might be located in another country, so you might find yourself staring at the English-language default page for Google France or Google Germany.
We like that Torpark includes an extension to display our current Tor IP address at the bottom of the browser; you can even set Torpark to change every minute if you are really paranoid. That said, we also found a few occasions when our IP address on display was an unprintable word.
Even without a second computer running Firefox, most people will notice a performance hit within Torpark when the Tor circuit is enabled--worse if you run Torpark exclusively from a USB drive. Without the Tor circuit enabled, however, we found Torpark's resolution speeds to be faster than Internet Explorer's, closer to Firefox's, even when accessing graphics-heavy pages.
Technical support for Torpark is limited. Using the help menu within the browser simply returns the standard Mozilla Firefox help information. To find the Torpark manual, look under the Bookmarks menu or online. There are no Torpark staff members standing by to help with e-mail questions, nor are there static FAQs available. Torpark directs users to its Torpark forums for all solutions.
Unless you are feeling oppressed by your government, university, or company, there's no real reason to switch over to Torpark.