Hands-on: Go (almost) anonymous on the Internet with Anonabox

Want to elude snooping at home and abroad? The preconfigured Anonabox router is easier to use than Tor software alone and provides greater protection

Hands-on: Go (almost) anonymous on the Internet with Anonabox
Credit: Anonabox

Nothing on the Internet is perfectly anonymous. Despite what many people may tell you, the complexities of hardware and software systems make true anonymity almost impossible, particularly when the right people decide to expend the effort to find you.

That said, there are reasonable (and even unreasonable) steps you can take to remain anonymous to most people and devices on the Internet. One of the most promising and popular tools for basic anonymity is Tor. As stated on the Tor website:

Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.

Essentially, you use a Tor-enabled browser, and it routes all network traffic to and from the source and destination over randomly selected intermediate nodes, encrypting as much of the traffic is possible. It’s far from perfect anonymity, but it’s a great way to partially shield yourself with the least amount of hassle.

One of the fundamental weaknesses of Tor, however, is that it’s software-based and can be a pain to configure and use, especially across multiple computers or on a new device. That’s where Anonabox comes in: It employs specially configured hardware.

The cloaking device

I recently had the chance to review Anonabox Pro (model: anbM6-Pro), a portable, Wi-Fi-enabled VPN and Tor router. Instead of having to configure Tor on your computer or mobile device, you use an Anonabox device instead.

Anonabox had a rough start. After initially appearing on Kickstarter and gathering more than enough funding, the site pulled its support due to a “violation of rules.” But it reappeared on Indiegogo and reached its goal quickly.

Personally, I’m OK with Anonabox breaking the rules during its initial crowdfunding run. To me the transgressions seem harmless enough. No laws were broken and I’m far more concerned about the quality of the final product.

Anonabox is now for sale at $119.99 for the top-of-the-line model. It’s a deal. Also, I love that creator August Germar is giving a portion of Anonabox’s proceeds to help defray the health care costs of the infamous Captain Crunch hacker, John Draper.

Evaluating Anonabox Pro

Anonabox makes four different models: Original, Fawkes (a nod to Guy Fawkes), Tunneler, and in the top slot, Pro. The Pro model runs an embedded Linux version known as OpenWrt. It supports Dropbear SSH and Secure Copy; simply add one or more SSH keys.

I love the Pro’s very small footprint. It’s sleek, black, and about one-third to one-half the size (2 by 1.5 by 3/4 inches) of a cigarette package. You plug in the provided Micro USB cable into the Pro device and the other end into your computer to power up.

You can connect using a regular network cable (recommended for ultimate security) or to the Wi-Fi network named anonabox-pro, which is an open Wi-Fi network. Open a browser and connect to the hard-coded address of http://192.168.19.84:1776 (love the 1776 reference), which loads the admin interface. I’m a little disappointed that the initial connection is not HTTPS enabled; that seems like a freshman error.

Not helping matters is the initial root logon password is blank. An open Wi-Fi network with a blank admin password is a significant, albeit temporary, risk, but at least Anonabox highlights the lack of a password on all screens and gives you an easy link to quickly add one. The instructions also recommend reconfiguring the anonabox-pro Wi-Fi network from the defaults, including hiding the EESID, turning on WPA encryption, and locking the device to your MAC address. Still, I’d prefer a pre-installed password equal to the device’s MAC address or something printed on the device itself for the initial logon.

Next, you need to join your Anonabox device to another valid working Wi-Fi network, which you can access to complete your now proxy connection to the Internet. Under the Wi-Fi menu option you select Network, W-iFi, or Scan, or you can manually add one. After you have a successful regular Internet connection, you can make it private and/or anonymous on the device.

Enabling privacy

There are three network security options: OpenVPN, Tor, and HideMyAss (I’m not making up that last one). OpenVPN is for entering configuration settings and credentials to connect you to your own, previously defined VPN connection point.

The Tor option, obviously, connects you to Tor. Anonabox Pro does this well. It offers a very easy way to get Tor protection running on any computer you use. You can also run a Tor (onion) Web server and/or set up a Tor routing/exit node, although neither option is a default. You’ll definitely see a slowdown in your nonprotected Internet network transmission speed because Anonabox Pro is using Tor, which itself induces latency. However, because the Tor transmissions are done in hardware, you can expect faster speeds than if you use Tor software alone.

The HideMyAss Feature connects to the HideMyAss VPN service, a high-quality, commercial option (the Pro device comes with a 30-day free pass). Of course, most of the initial setup options are saved so that you can power up and use them for future connections. If you use Tor, the firewall configuration settings are not saved through a reboot or power interruption event. This is intentional, to protect your privacy.

Anonabox pros and cons

Overall, I really like the device. It does what it claims to do -- in an attractive form factor, no less. I’m not the sort of person who needs anonymity most of the time, but there are occasions, especially when traveling, when I wish for a bit more privacy, and Anonabox Pro makes this easy, at a moment’s notice.

I didn’t get a chance to try out the feature that lets you get around Internet-censoring blocks, but I can’t wait to test it on my next trip to mainland China. It’s a bit frustrating when you can’t get to Facebook or Twitter, especially when everyone in the country uses a proxy to maneuver around the blocks (even the guy who made the blocking firewall).

I encountered a few small bugs during setup and use, most of which are covered in the accompanying setup guide. Also, the Pro device I received does not support 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, which is a disappointment -- my house’s physical security cameras operate over my 2.5GHz band (and flood that spectrum to the point where it’s unusable by any other item).

Again, nothing will give you perfect anonymity on the Internet, including Anonabox. All Anonabox Pro gives you is network traffic protection, no more, no less. But if you feel you need another layer of protection, Anonabox Pro can only make the privacy path easier. I liked the Anonabox Pro device enough that it’s going into my travel bag.

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