This VPN built on blockchain could be the next step in privacy tech

Orchid is an Ethereum-backed VPN-Tor hybrid.

Rae Hodge Former senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
Rae Hodge
5 min read
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No matter how much we trust any particular virtual private network to help mask our internet browsing, we engage in that service knowing that all of our data is essentially funneled to a single company, whose servers most of us have never seen with our own eyes. That's the core problem with even the best VPN -- despite all the audits and transparency gestures many companies undergo, it's still a user-trust business. At the end of the day, VPN business success is a game of keeping a good reputation. But what if there were a VPN technology that didn't require you to trust it? 

Enter Orchid, a decentralized bandwidth market designed to be anonymous and uncensorable. With an app launched in December, you use a unique cryptocurrency built on Ethereum called OXT to pay for private bandwidth as you go, sans subscription. At the core of the experience is a single aim: Instead of putting all your trust into a single VPN company, you distribute that trust across multiple VPN providers, as you break apart the flow of your internet traffic information so that no single entity can see the whole picture. 

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Orchid's end goal is to create a privacy network that looks something like Tor -- a system where your traffic hops from one connection point called a "node" to the next in a bid to shake any potential snoops off your browsing trail. But unlike Tor, which has nodes that are volunteer-run, Orchid node operators have financial incentives to keep speeds up. 

Orchid's other key differences from Tor suggest it could be poised to stake a claim as the next generation of privacy technology.

For instance, one of the widely known hurdles in using Tor is the amount of speed loss you endure as your traffic makes multiple hops between the volunteer-run nodes. The same problem has afflicted VPN services, leading providers in the market to compete for the highest speeds, often at the expense of privacy. 

Orchid, on the other hand, is promising a VPN unencumbered by slow speeds, with better privacy found at each of your hops. 

"Currently, with the results we're getting, we're able to do things like WhatsApp video streaming, even over two hops," said Orchid co-founder Steven Waterhouse. A speed boost like this could enable a broader layer of privacy for any internet-connected software on your computer or phone without the lags of Tor. 

"There are companies that support multiple hops, but the multiple hops are going within that same server," Waterhouse said. "So, it doesn't really help that much because that [VPN] company is still capable of logging all that information. With our system you're hopping between different providers" 

Therefore, it's nearly impossible for any one to keep a log of your activity.

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And that brings us to the real limitations of what Tor can do for your privacy. Feeding all of your device's internet-connected applications -- whether a video chat app or your gaming traffic -- through an encrypted tunnel is traditionally the function of a VPN, not Tor. 

Orchid co-founder Jay Freeman points out that while people have developed workarounds, Tor's fundamental architecture is geared toward use with a browser. 

"It was essentially designed from the ground up to solve a particularly narrow set of problems related to web browsing. So it is just not possible to put things like a video call over Tor and have it work well at all," Freeman said. 

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A privacy alternative

This limitation of Tor in an age where seemingly every piece of software you use is demanding an internet connection is where the need for Orchid's hybrid technology comes into focus. Combining faster, more private hops with a system-wide encrypted protection where no single bandwidth provider gets to see the whole picture? That could change not just the game, but the entire playing field.

Orchid's promise as a privacy alternative comes with a handful of limitations outlined in its publicly available white paper. Most of the limitations are associated with the limits of Ethereum currency itself, meaning anything that could take down an Ethereum network (as unlikely as that would be at this point) could take down Orchid. Likewise, Orchid's ability to scale may be limited to a few million users under certain network conditions. 

Another limitation is found in Orchid's nanopayment system, which could present an obstacle to fulfilling its privacy promises. Despite the privacy boost offered by using cryptocurrency, you'd still need to anonymize any OXT currency before loading into Orchid's nanopayment system to ensure a greater degree of anonymity. 

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"We're trying to combine a lot of the most positive benefits of other VPN protocols that have existed, trying to make it so that you have something that is a system-wide VPN that is actually handling all different kinds of traffic for your computer," said Freeman. 

"At the same time we're trying to make it so that our traffic is something that is very normal, in the sense of something that a web browser would be able to actually have generated itself," he added. "So that allows it to get around a lot of firewalls that are there trying to do relatively naive protocol analysis and detection." 

Orchid's biggest drawback, however, may be the very thing that makes it so innovative as a novel privacy technology: A crypto-financed hybrid VPN based on a bandwidth-trading market is a hard pitch to make to the average person. But Waterhouse said Orchid is moving toward an easier user experience.

While Orchid only has an Android app available at present, Waterhouse said other platforms are in the works and should be released soon. 

"We are definitely focused on trying to kind of make it more usable and more accessible by lots of people," Waterhouse said. "And that's the direction that will be going with applications."

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