posted by David Adams on Tue 12th Jul 2005 15:52 UTC
IconThe Tor Desktop Virtual Privacy Machine is a USB JumpDrive preloaded with a complete Linux OS and a roster of useful applications. Plug it into a Windows or Linux machine and launch a virtual Linux desktop that routes all network traffic through multiple network proxies using the Tor network. This provides a totally secure way to access your data, even when using an internet cafe PC or an untrusted network.

The VPM is a 128 MB Lexar JumpDrive USB key with a system installed on it based on Damn Small Linux/Knoppix and the Qemu processor emulator. It also contains all of the basic applications that a desktop user might need, like web browsing, email, IM, FTP, document viewing and editing, sound and video, and various system utilities. There's enough room left on the drive to save bookmarks, settings, and small personal files.


I tested the VPM on a relatively cheapo 3 Ghz Pentium 4 with 512 MB Ram running Windows XP SP2: something similar to what you might find in a newer cybercafe. It can be used as a virtual desktop on either Windows or Linux, but I only tested it on Windows. I plugged it into my Mac with the idea that I might run it in VirtualPC just for kicks, but while I was waiting for VPC to launch, I decided that it was insane. (There's a PPC-emulating version of Qemu in the works which could theoretically be used to run a slimmed down version of PPC Linux, but that would be a pretty big project)

To get started, just plug the USB drive into an available USB port (I used the one in my keyboard) and wait for the drive to mount. When it does, there are three files available: a very short readme, a DOS batch file to launch the Windows version and a shell script to launch the Linux version. There's no installation of anything and no rebooting of the machine necessary. On my machine, it took one minute and twenty seconds for the system to boot up.

The system booted to an aesthetically pleasing Fluxbox-based desktop with a dark, Mordor-esque background picture and five big buttons across the top for Shell, Email (Sylpheed), Web (Firefox), IRC (X-Chat), and Messaging (Ayttm). All other functions are accessed through a right click. Forget all of the typical complaints about Linux on the desktop, with its too many options for everything. Space constraints have made this desktop very trim and quite intuitive, even elegant.


There is one linux-on-the-desktop complaint frequently trotted out by forum trolls that certainly applies to this experience: speed. With a combination of system performance affected by Qemu's performance overhead and the network performance hit due to routing all traffic through TOR proxies, overall performance is a bit sluggish. It takes eighteen seconds from clicking on the Firefox icon to get Firefox loaded and the default Google homepage loaded up. It takes about five seconds to receive the results of a query on Google. It took about fifteen seconds for OSNews to load up completely. On the other hand, less network-intensive tasks like IM don't really show off the slowdown. In a lot of ways, it felt like using an older, slower computer on a dial-up network connection. The bottom line is, if you want the privacy and security, there's a price to pay, and that price is sluggish performance. I was happy to see that the performance hit wasn't as severe as it has been on anonymous proxy servers that I've used in the past, though.

One thing that's fun about the VPM is that you can see which country your proxy server is in by using the default Google page in Firefox. Google variously pegged me as being in Sweden, Canada, Greece, Germany, and the US (or unknown). I'll start to worry when Google starts giving me results in Bork, Bork, Bork, Elmer Fudd, or Pig Latin.

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