Invizbox Go aims to make mobile privacy painless over any Wi-Fi

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Mobile VPN and Tor router can tether to public Wi-Fi—and charge your phone.

Over the past year, there has been a burst of crowd-funded efforts to provide simple, inexpensive privacy solutions for computer and mobile device users without the need to install or maintain software. These hardware devices, based on low-cost, system-on-chip hardware (and in some cases, simply on rebranded off-the-shelf Wi-Fi routers) have gotten a mixed welcome from security and networking experts; while they have made it easier for people with little computer skill to connect to the Tor anonymizing network or to virtual private networks, they have as a class been inconsistent in just how easy they make it—and just how anonymous they make their users. Now another crowd-funded effort from the team behind one of the more credible previous efforts is looking to fix some of those shortcomings.

Back in April, Ars performed a head-to-head test of two devices that promised automatic anonymity for their users from any device: palm-sized Wi-Fi “travel routers” designed to tunnel traffic over the Tor anonymizing network, and found they worked as advertised, but came with (at least) one big handicap. Both devices, the Anonabox and Invizbox, required a physical connection to an Ethernet network for Internet access. Given that it’s increasingly rare to find an Ethernet port while traveling and that the majority of privacy problems occur when the only thing available is someone else’s Wi-Fi network, that gap makes pocket Tor routers pretty much useless as protection when people need it the most, limiting their appeal.

The Irish startup behind the Invizbox— Invizbox Ltd, founded by Elizabeth Canavan, Paul Canavan, and Chris Monks—recognized those shortcomings fairly early. Now they’ve come up with a solution: the Invizbox Go, a mobile device that acts as a security gateway to Wi-Fi networks for computers and mobile devices. Launching as a Kickstarter project today, Invizbox Go is currently in the prototype stage and is expected to ship in February. It builds on the work done with Invizbox to deliver what could be a much more complete answer to mobile anonymity than most of the other options currently available, in part because it doesn’t totally put its eggs all in the Tor basket.

The security device space has spawned a number of mobile VPN products already, such as x.o ware, which Ars has also tested (it consists of a pair of devices that creates a two-factor authenticated VPN over Wi-Fi networks back to the user’s home network). An Indiegogo project called Keezel also promises a personal VPN over any Wi-Fi network without having to add software to devices. But thus far, Invizbox Go is the only project we’ve seen that is fully open source and offers a broad range of privacy options, allowing users to make the decision about trade-offs between speed and degree of anonymity.

The Invizbox Go can act both as a Wi-Fi access point and a tethered external power source for mobile devices—sort of a back-up battery that also has your privacy back. It allows the user to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot (managing captive portal logins and other hiccups) through the device, and then to access the Internet either through Tor or a much faster virtual private network subscription service. It does not require any software to be installed on the user’s computer or mobile device and will perform automatic software updates. In addition to the standard Tor client, the Go can also use Tor’s “pluggable transports”—protocols that mask Tor’s traffic signature to prevent its detection by deep packet inspection firewalls. And users with a VPN subscription can get an “enhanced” Tor experience, using the VPN to mask the first hop to the Tor network entirely within the VPN connection.

A prototype of the Invizbox Go, a portable Wi-Fi privacy device that can connect to public Wi-Fi and act as a Tor or VPN gateway.
A prototype of the Invizbox Go, a portable Wi-Fi privacy device that can connect to public Wi-Fi and act as a Tor or VPN gateway.

Other optional privacy features that can heighten privacy with or without Tor include built-in “HTTPS Everywhere” capability, which attempts to elevate all HTTP Web requests to encrypted HTTPS connections when possible; and optional blocking of the Windows 10 “tracking” domains used for telemetry by Microsoft that could be used as part of a fingerprint for Windows 10 devices.

The hardware for the Go has yet to be finalized, partially because of one additional challenge the team hopes to overcome—the limitations of VPN performance that come from running on low-cost wireless router hardware. The Invizbox team is currently looking at ARM-based SoC and potentially going with a multicore processor. But that might mean dumping Invizbox’s current OpenWRT-based platform, which Paul Canavan says “is not well equipped to deal with [symmetric multiprocessing], though it does allow process cpu pinning.”

The new capabilities of the Go come at about double the price of the original Invizbox offering. The Go will sell for €89 (about $100) bundled with a year’s worth of the subscription VPN service, or €119 ($135) with two years’ service bundled; VPN service outside of the bundle is expected to cost €4 a month (about $4.50) or €40 ($45) per year. That’s competitive with other VPN services. For the first wave of Kickstarter investors, the Invizbox Go will be available for €79 (about $89.50).