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Blogging with Wordpress and Tor
October 01, 2006
One of the great joys of working on Global
Voices has been having the chance to work with people who are
expressing themselves despite powerful forces working to keep them
silent. Iíve worked with a number of authors whoíve wanted to write
about politicial or personal matters online, but who felt they couldnít
write online unless they could ensure that their writing couldnít
be traced to their identity. These authors include human rights
activists in dozens of nations, aid workers in repressive countries
as well as whistleblowers within companies and governments.
I wrote a
technical guide to anonymous blogging some months back and posted
it on Global Voices, outlining several different methods for blogging
anonymously. Since then, Iíve led workshops in different corners
of the world and have gotten comfortable teaching a particular set
of tools - Tor, Wordpress and various free email accounts - which
used in combination can provide a very high level of anonymity.
The guide that follows below doesnít offer you any options - it
just walks you through one particular solution in detail.
You can feel free to ignore the "why"
sections of the guide if you want a quicker read and if youíre the
sort of person who doesnít need to know why to do something. I hope
to format this more prettily at some point in the future, allowing
the "why" sections to be expanded and compressed, making
the whole document a lot shorter.
If Iíve been unclear somewhere in the
document or got something wrong, please let me know in the comments
- this is a draft which I hope to clean up before posting it on
Global Voices. Should you find it useful and want to disseminate
it further, feel free - like almost everything on this site, itís
licensed under a
Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution license, which means youíre
free to print it on coffee cups and sell them, if you think thereís
a market and money to be made.
My disclaimer: If you follow these directions
exactly, youíll sharply reduce the chances that your identity will
be linked to your online writing through technical means - i.e.,
through a government or law enforcement agency obtaining records
from an Internet Service Provider. Unfortunately, I cannot guarantee
that they work in all circumstances, including your circumstances,
nor can I accept liability, criminal or civil, should use or misuse
of these directions get you into legal, civil or personal trouble.
These directions do nothing to prevent you
from being linked through other technical means, like keystroke logging
(the installation of a program on your computer to record your keystrokes)
or traditional surveillance (watching the screen of your computer
using a camera or telescope). The truth is, most people get linked
to their writing through non-technical means: they write something
that leaves clues to their identity, or they share their identity
with someone who turns out not to be trustworthy. I canít help you
on those fronts except to tell you to be careful and smart. For a
better guide to the "careful and smart" side of things,
I recommend EFFís "How
to Blog Safely" guide.
Step 1: Disguise your IP
Every computer on the
internet has or shares an IP address. These addresses arenít the
same thing as a physical address, but they can lead a smart system
administrator to your physical address. In particular, if you work
for an ISP, you can often associate an IP address with the phone
number that requested that IP at a specific time. So before we do
anything anonymous on the Internet, we need to disguise our IP.
What to do if you want to blog from your
home or work machine:
a) Install Firefox.
Download it at the
Mozilla site and install it on the main machine you blog from.
Internet Explorer has some egregious
security holes that can compromise your online security. These holes
tend to go unpatched for longer on IE than on other browsers. (Donít
believe me? Ask
Bruce Schneier.) Itís the browser most vulnerable to spyware
you might inadvertently download from a website. And many of the
privacy tools being released are being written specifically to work
with Firefox, including Torbutton, which weíll be using in a future
b) Install Tor. Download
the program from
the Tor site. Pick the "latest stable release" for
your platform and download it onto your desktop. Follow the instructions
that are linked to the right of the release you downloaded. Youíll
install two software packages and need to make some changes to the
settings within your new installation of Firefox.
Tor is a very sophisticated network
of proxy servers. Proxy servers request a web page on your behalf,
which means that the web server doesnít see the IP address of the
computer requesting the webpage. When you access Tor, youíre using
three different proxy servers to retrieve each webpage. The pages
are encrypted in transit between servers, and even if one or two
of the servers in the chain were compromised, it would be very difficult
to see what webapge you were retrieving or posting to.
Tor installs another piece of software,
increases the security settings on your browser, blocking cookies
and other pieces of tracking software. Conveniently, it also blocks
many ads you encounter on webpages.
c) Install Torbutton.
about it and install
it, following the instructions on the installation page. Youíll
need to be using Firefox to install it easily - from Firefox, it
will simply ask you for permission to install itself from the page
Turning on Tor by hand means remembering
to change your browser preferences to use a proxy server. This is
a muiltistep process, which people sometimes forget to do. Torbutton
makes the process a single mouse click and reminds you whether youíre
using Tor or not, which can be very helpful.
You may find that Tor slows down your
web use - this is a result of the fact that Tor requests are routed
through three proxies before reaching the webserver. Some folks
- me included - use Tor only in situations where itís important
to disguise identity and turn it off otherwise - Torbutton makes
this very easy.
d) Turn on Tor in Firefox and
test it out. With Tor turned on, visit
this URL. If you get a message telling you, "You seem to
be using Tor!", then youíve got everything installed correctly
and youíre ready for the next step.
Itís always a good idea to see
whether the software youíve installed works, especially when itís
doing something as important as Tor is. The page youíre accessing
is checking to see what IP address your request is coming from.
If itís from a known Tor node, Tor is working correctly and your
IP is disguised - if not, somethingís wrong and you should try to
figure out why Tor isnít working correctly.
if youíre going to be writing primarily from shared computers (like
cybercafe computers) or youíre unable to install software on a computer.
a) Download Torpark
Download the package from the
Torpark site onto a computer where you can save files. Insert
your USB key and copy the Torpark.exe onto the key. Using this USB
key and any Windows computer where you can insert a USB key, you
can access a Tor-protected browser. On this shared computer, quit
the existing web browser. Insert the key, find the keyís filesystem
on the Desktop, and double-click the torpark.exe. This will launch
a new browser which accesses the web through Tor.
b) Test that Torpark is working
by visiting the
Tor test site with the Tor-enabled browser and making sure you
get a "You seem to be using Tor!" message.
Torpark is a highly customized
version of the Firefox browser with Tor and Privoxy already installed.
Itís designed to be placed on a USB key so that you can access Tor
from shared computers that donít permit you to install software.
While I recommend Torpark and use it when I travel, it is not formally
supported by the folks behind Tor - theyíre not happy that early
versions of the program werenít released with source code, which
meant that it was impossible to determine precisely what Torpark
did and how it used Torís source code. A more recent version of
the program includes source code - it will be interesting to see
whether Torís programmers offer their blessing of this version.
Roger Dingledine of Tor has also indicated that he and his colleages
are planning an open source version of a portable browser with Tor
installed, but the timeline for this new project is unknown.
Step 2: Generate a new, hard
to trace email account
Most web services - including
blog hosting services - require an email address so that they communicate
with their users. For our purposes, this email address canít connect
to any personally identifiable information, including the IP address
we used to sign up for the service. This means we need a new account
which we sign up for using Tor, and we need to ensure that none
of the data we use - name, address, etc. - can be linked to us.
You should NOT use an existing email account - itís very likely
that you signed up for the account from an undisguised IP, and most
webmail providers store the IP address you signed up under.
a) Choose a webmail provider
- we recommend Hushmail
but as long as youíre using Tor, you could use Yahoo
Webmail is the best way to create
a "disposeable" email address, one you can use to sign
up for services and otherwise ignore. But a lot of users also use
webmail as their main email as well. If you do this, itís important
to understand some of the strengths and weaknesses of different
Hotmail and Yahoo mail both have a "security
feature" that makes privacy advocates very unhappy. Both include
the IP address of the computer used to send any email. This isnít
relavent when youíre accessing those services through Tor, since
the IP address will be a Tor IP address, rather than your IP address.
Also, Hotmail and Yahoo donít offer secure HTTP (https) interfaces
to webmail - again, this doesnít matter so long as you use Tor every
time you use these mail services. But many users will want to check
their mail in circumstances where they donít have Tor installed
- for your main webmail account, itís worth choosing a provider
that has an https interface to mail.
Hushmail provides webmail with a very
high degree of security. They support PGP encryption - which is
very useful if you correspond with people who also use PGP. Their
interface to webmail uses https and they donít include the sending
IP in outgoing emails. But theyíre a for-profit service and they
offer only limited services to non-paying users. If you sign up
for a free account, you have to log into it every couple of weeks
to make sure the system doesnít delete it. Because theyíre aggresive
about trying to convert free users to paid users, and because their
system uses a lot of Java applets, some find that Hushmail isnít
the right choice for them.
Gmail, while it doesnít advertise itself
as a secure mail service, has some nice security features built
in. If you visit this
special URL, your entire session with Gmail will be encrypted
via https. (I recommend bookmarking that URL and using it for all
your Gmail sessions.) Gmail doesnít include the originating IP in
mail headers, and you can add PGP support to Gmail by using the
a Firefox extension that adds strong crypto to Gmail (it works with
other mail services as well.) The problem with Gmail is their signup
process - to sign up for a Gmail account, you either need an invitation
from an existing Gmail member, or you need to use your mobile phone
to sign up for an account. Needless to say, we do not recommend
using your mobile phone to request an invitation - it gives Google
far too much personally identifiable information about you linked
to that account.
Instead, if you already have a
Gmail account, send an invitation to yourself. This will send you
an email with a unique URL in it - copy that URL into a text editor
or write it down. Turn on Tor, paste that URL into your browser
and use it to sign up for the new account. Better yet, get an invitation
from soneone who doesnít know you - visit Bytetest
both of which maintain lists of free Gmail invitations.
A warning on all webmail accounts - youíre
trusting the company that runs the service with all your email.
If that company gets hacked, or if they are pressured by other governments
to reveal information, theyíve got access to the text of all the
mails youíve received and sent. The only way around this is to write
your mails in a text editor, encrypt them on your own machine using
PGP and send them to someone also using PGP. This is way beyond
the level of secrecy most of us want and need, but itís important
to remember that youíre trusting a company that might or might not
have your best interests at heart. Yahoo, in particular, has a nasty
habit of turning over information to the Chinese government - Chinese
dissidents are now suing the company for illegal release of
their data. Just something to think about when you decide who to
b) Turn Tor on in your browser,
or start Torpark. Visit the mail site of your choice and sign up
for a new account. Donít use any personally identifiable
information - consider becoming a boringly named individual in a
country with a lot of web users, like the US or the UK. Set a good,
strong password (at least eight characters, include at least
one number or special character) for the account and choose a username
similar to what youíre going to name your blog.
c) Make sure youíre able to log
onto the mail service and send mail while Tor is enabled.
Step 3: Register your new anonymous
a) Turn Tor on in your browser, or start
Torpark. Visit Wordpress.com
and sign up for a new account by clicking the "Get a New WordPress
Blog" link. Use the email address you just created and create
a username that will be part of your blog address: thenameyouchoose.wordpress.com
b) Wordpress will send an activation
link to your webmail account. Use your Tor-enabled browser to retrieve
the mail and follow that activation link. This
lets Wordpress know youíve used a live email account and that they
can reach you with updates to their service - as a result, theyíll
make your blog publicly viewable and send you your password. Youíll
need to check your webmail again to retrieve this password.
c) Still using Tor, log into your new
blog using your username and password. Click on "My Dashboard",
then on "Update your profile or change your password."
Change your password to a strong password that
you can remember. Feel free to add information to your profile as
wellÖ just make sure none of that information is linked to you!
Step 4: Post to your blog
a) Write your blog post
offline. Not only is this a good way to keep from losing a post
if your browser crashes or your net connection goes down, it means
you can compose your posts somewhere more private than a cybercafe.
A simple editor, like Wordpad for Windows, is usually the best to
use. Save your posts as text files.
b) Turn on Tor, or use Torpark, and log
onto Wordpress.com. Click the "write" button to write
a new post. Cut and paste the post from your text file to the post
window. Give the post a title and put it into whatever categories
you want to use.
c) Before you hit "Publish",
thereís one key step. Click on the blue bar on the right of the
screen that says "Post Timestamp." Click the checkbox
that says "Edit Timestamp". Choose a
time a few minutes in the future - ideally, pick a random interval
and use a different number each time. This will put a variable delay
on the time your post will actually appear on the site - Wordpress
wonít put the post up until it reaches the time youíve specified.
By editing the timestamp, weíre
protecting against a technique someone might use to try to determine
your identity. Imagine youíre writing a blog called "Down with
Ethiopia Telecommunications Company!" Someone at ETC might
start following that blog closely and wonder whether one of their
customers was writing the blog. They start recording the times a
post was made on downwithetc.wordpress.com and check these timestamps
against their logs. They discover that a few seconds before each
post was made over the series of a month, one of their customers
was accessing one or another Tor node. They conclude that their
user is using Tor to post to the blog and turn this information
over to the police.
By changing the timestamp of the posts,
we make this attack more difficult for the internet service provider.
Now theyíd need access to the logs of the Wordpress server as well,
which are much harder to get than their own logs. Itís a very easy
step to take that increases your security.
Step 5: Cover your tracks
a) Securely erase the
rough drafts of the post you made from your laptop or home machine.
If you used a USB key to bring the post to the cybercafe, youíll
need to erase that, too. Itís not sufficient to move the file to
the trash and empty the trash - you need to use a secure erasing
tool like Eraser which overwrites the old file with data that makes
it impossible to retrieve. On a Macintosh, this functionality is
built it - bring a file to the trash and choose "Secure Empty
Trash" from the Finder Menu.
b) Clear your browser history, cookies
and passwords from Firefox. Under the Tools menu, select "Clear
Private Data". Check all the checkboxes and hit "okay".
You might want to set up Firefox so that it automatically clears
your data when you quit - you can do this under "Firefox ->
Preferences -> Privacy -> Settings". Choose the checkbox
that says "Clear private data when closing Firefox".
Itís very easy for someone to view
the websites youíve visited on a computer by reviewing your browser
history. More sophisticated snoops can find out your browsing history
by checking your cache files, which include stored versions of webpages.
We want to clear all this data out from a public computer so that
the next user doesnít find it. And we want to eliminate it from
our personal computer so that if that computer were lost, stolen
or seized, we canít be linked to the posts weíve made.
Some parting thoughts:
- Itís not enough just to protect yourself
when writing to your own blog. If youíre going to post comments
on other blogs using your "nom de blog", you need to
use Tor when posting those comments as well. Most blog software
records the IP a comment came from - if you donít use Tor, you
invite whoever runs that site to track your IP address back to
your computer. Torís like a condom - donít practice unsafe blogging.
- Just because youíre anonymous doesnít
mean you shouldnít make your blog pretty. The "Presentation"
tab in Wordpress has lots of options to play with - you can pick
different templates, even upload photos to customize some of them.
But be very, very careful in using your own photos - you give
a lot of information about yourself in posting a photo (if the
photo was taken in Zambia, for instance, itís evidence that you
are or were in Zambia.)
- If youíre really worried about your
security, you might want to go a step further in setting up your
browser and turn off Java. Thereís a nasty security bug in the
most recent release of Java that allows a malicious script author
to figure out what IP address your computer has been assigned
EVEN IF YOU ARE USING TOR. We donít worry too much about this
because we donít think that Wordpress.com or Google are running
these malicious scriptsÖ but itís something to seriously consider
if youíre using Tor for other reasons. To turn off Java, go to
"Firefox -> Preferences -> Content" and uncheck
the box for Enable Java.
- If youíre the only person in your
country using Tor, it becomes pretty obvious - the same user is
the only one who accesses the IP addresses associated with Tor
nodes. If youíre going to use Tor and youíre worried that an ISP
might be investigating Tor use, you might want to encourage other
friends to use Tor - this creates what cryptographers call "cover
traffic". You also might want to use Tor to read various
websites, not just to post to your blog. In both cases, this means
that Tor is being used for reasons other than just posting to
your anonymous blog, which means that a user accessing Tor in
an ISPís server logs doesnít automatically make the ISP think
something bad is taking place.
A final thought on anonymity: If you
donít really need to be anonymous, donít be. If your name is associated
with your words, people are likely to take your words seriously.
But some people are going to need to be anonymous, and thatís why
this guide exists. Just please donít use these techniques unless
you really need to.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.