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App of the Week: Onion Browser

If you're craving mobile anonymity after this week's government snooping revelations, here's one option


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Andrew Leonard
June 9, 2013 10:00PM (UTC)

After a week that saw the exposure of two major government snooping programs, there could be only one choice for "App of the Week": the Onion Browser for iOS, "a Tor-capable Web browser that lets you access the Internet privately and anonymously."

The Tor Project aims to provide Internet users with a secure, anonymous browsing alternative that will hide your online activities from government snoops or other Big Data crunchers. While the Onion Browser is not officially affiliated with the Tor Project, it does "tunnel" through the same network of anonymizing relays that provide desktop Tor browsers with a cloak of secrecy.

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Yes, I know, my most recent post for Salon declared that online privacy tools are a joke, but it still seemed to me that taking a smartphone anonymizing browser out for a spin was the appropriate thing to do this week.

Installing it is as easy as any other iOS app, although the creator of the Onion Browser, Mike Tigas, is charging 99 cents per download to recoup the costs of subscribing to the iOS Developer Program.

But as soon as you fire up the app, you get an explicit warning not to expect the same comforts as any other smartphone browser.

Please note that web browsing through the anonymization network will be significantly slower than through a non-tunneled browser connection.

I can attest, through personal experience, that this is true.

After visiting Salon and the New York Times to see if there were any recent updates on government snooping I might have missed, I checked out YouTube. As I noted in my online privacy tools piece on Friday, the Tor desktop browser disables plugins such as Flash on security grounds. You have to manually configure Tor to work with Flash if you want to watch YouTube videos. Interestingly, when using the Onion Browser, there's no problem watching videos.

But that's not necessarily a good thing, at least insofar as security is concerned. The iPhone uses an embedded QuickTime player to play video that is formatted in HTML5. According to Tigas, "the HTML5 video implementation in iOS continues to request video files without tunneling through Tor. An attacker eavesdropping on your connection would see the domain name being requested and they could also pick up the video file." So, just as with the desktop Tor browser, if you want to watch video, you have to lower your defensive shields.

Tigas says that based on his testing and the feedback from other users, the HTML5 video issue "is the only serious traffic leak in the app." So if you're looking for a way to do some anonymous browsing on your iPhone or iPad, the Onion Browser appears to be a reasonable option. However, your browsing will be slower, and you'll still be inside Apple's iOS ecosystem -- if you use any other Apple services, your activities will obviously be open to scrutiny.

For iOS only.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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