What we’re doing in response to the invasion of Ukraine

The situation in Ukraine is unsettling, and requires the world to step in and help on every front. Whether you do your part and help with donations, use your cybersecurity skills or attending & staging protests, anything helps.

In response to the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military, we have expanded our operations on the Tor network.

What exactly does this do, and how does it help, you might ask?

Tor is a network of virtual tunnels that allows you to improve your privacy and security on the Internet. Tor works by sending your traffic through three random servers (also known as relays) in the Tor network. The last relay in the circuit (the exit relay) then sends the traffic out onto the public Internet.

Source: https://tb-manual.torproject.org/about/

This makes Tor critical infrastructure to those living in oppressive countries. Without Tor, they can’t access many sites and services that provide views that their governments don’t want them to see.

While Tor is accessible in Ukraine (despite internet outages), and not being actively blocked, it is not the same in Russia. There are many Russians who do not agree with the decision to invade Ukraine, and they have been staging protests across Russia. As such, it’s very important that Russian protestors have a way to access the uncensored internet. For many years, Roskomnadzor, a Russian agency focused on censoring and controlling the media Russian’s consume, has been cutting Russians off from websites and services they deem unpalatable. Right now, Tor is blocked in Russia, and we want to help unblock it through anti-censorship Tor bridges. Everyone should have access to an uncensored internet.

How specifically are we helping combat this now?

Well, since the start of the invasion we’ve deployed 5 additional Tor bridges (our focus), and 4 exit relays. Our Tor bridges were deployed in strategic locations, close to but outside of Russia, for optimal latency.

What exactly are Tor bridges?

Tor bridges are the first hop onto the Tor network for many users in countries enforcing internet censorship. They use obfuscation to disguise Tor traffic to and from a user, & make it look unsuspicious to would-be snoopers looking to block connections to the Tor network.

Since the deployment of our Tor bridges, we’ve seen high usage across the board. This doesn’t surprise us, as Tor usage has been spiking in Ukraine, and bridge usage is up in Russia.

Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th to now (Feb 27th), our own metrics show that we have pushed over 100 TB of symmetrical traffic to and from the Tor network via all of our Tor relays and bridges.

How can you help?

You might be wondering, how can I help this effort to provide uncensored internet access. Well, it’s quite simple actually, and you don’t need to be tech-savvy at all. You can install Tor’s Snowflake browser add-on which helps censored users access the Tor network.

https://snowflake.torproject.org/

Additionally, you can donate to Unredacted. We will use any funds during the conflict to spin up new Tor bridges and expand our Tor footprint to help those experiencing internet censorship.

Donate here: unredacted.org/donate

You can also see the real world impact of your funding here (although Tor bridges produce much less traffic than other relay types): grafana.ulayer.net/d/p6X51lM7k/unredacted-tor-nodes?orgId=1

We wish the best for the people of Ukraine and Russia alike.

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Z

What do your donations to Unredacted do?

Unredacted is an organization with origins dating back to 2015, that was formed to provide free & open privacy/security preserving services to the people of the world. We now fly under our parent company, Universal Layer, which provides various services (primarily IPv4 leasing), but we haven’t changed a bit.

To fund our operations, we accept donations from generous benefactors that would like to see the continuation and nourishment of our project & services. Donations allow us to pay for infrastructure, domains, and time.

What do we provide?

In 2015, under the name Crypto World, we created XMPP.is; a large XMPP/Jabber server trusted by thousands of users to communicate securely and privately on the federated XMPP network. We also ran Tor relays and miscellaneous projects.

Since then, we’ve changed our name to Unredacted, and expanded our operations. We created a free and public Matrix server, which is a popular alternative to XMPP. We also started hosting Tor exit relays among expanding our existing Tor infrastructure (bridges and guard/middle relays).

In the future, we continue to expand and add more and more services, and expand our existing ones with additional funding.

Why do we need donations?

Simply put, we need money to run our services. Domains, hosting and time all cost money. While we’ve done our work for free, and had no expectation of payment for time, we still need to pay the monthly bills. Our Tor infrastructure is particularly expensive, as it requires fast servers and networks.

How your donations help us

Your generous donations help us alleviate the personal burden of having to pay hundreds of dollars a month for our services. For years, we covered bills on our own, but through many generous donations we’ve been able to run portions of infrastructure solely on donation money.

If you would like to help us out, please consider making a donation!

Merci,
Z

Advice on running your own Tor relays

As many of you may know, Tor relays are quite important to the Tor network. They allow Tor users to access .onion sites and regular internet. While hidden services (.onion sites) are great, the fact is that a lot of the internet can not be found within the Tor network. Exit relays, being one of the most essential relay types, facilitate the bridge between Tor, and the regular WWW (World Wide Web), allowing for true internet freedom.

For a good portion of 2021, we ran (and currently run) a set of Tor exit relays on dedicated servers with unmetered bandwidth. This is something that we haven’t attempted before, and typically ran guard and middle relays exclusively to not have to deal with abuse reports. Many people fear running exit relays because of legal issues some have experienced, which is completely understandable. You may also have a hard time finding a hosting provider that allows exit relays (see more below for suggestions). In this post, we will go through some of the things we’ve found to be beneficial in our endeavor to provide fast and secure infrastructure to the Tor network.

Network network network

The most important thing we’ve found is operating your own network when running exit relays.

  1. Having your own ASN (autonomous system number) is a great thing to have. It allows you to have a great deal of flexibility in what you can do with your network. Having your own ASN such as ours allows us to advertise our IPv4 and v6 prefixes on our servers or routers directly to our upstream (hosting) provider. We have more control over the routing, and our network looks unique when peering into our setup. We even have the option to establish our own private or public peering with other networks, allowing us to have direct connections to other networks (for speed and free bandwidth).
  2. Having your own IP prefixes (rented or owned) gives you autonomy. With your own IPs, you directly handle abuse complaints, as your email can be listed on the abuse contact of the IPs. With this, you do not need to be at the mercy of your hosting provider, who may or may not penalize you for every abuse complaint they receive for your exit relay. Abuse complaints nowadays are generally automated, making life challenging with many coming in per day. As we do, you can simply set up an auto-responder to reply to incoming complaints and ask that another email be reached if the complaint is serious and needs direct attention.

Hosting

This part is really up to you, but we recommend several things here.

  • A hosting or upstream provider that allows Tor relays (especially exit relays). We’ve tested a few providers, and can recommend them for Tor usage (as of 01/24/22).

    Terrahost (exits & guard/middle allowed)
    – Locations: Norway
    – Service: Dedicated & virtual servers, misc others

    BuyVM/Frantech[aff link] (exits & guard/middle allowed)
    – Locations: Las Vegas, New York, Miami & Luxembourg
    – Services: Virtual servers, misc others

    Less preferred/highly used hosts:

    Hetzner (dedicated & cloud [aff link]) (guard/middle allowed)
    – Locations: Finland, and various locations in Germany
    – Services: Dedicated & cloud servers

    OVH / SoYouStart (guard/middle allowed)
    – Locations: Global network in various countries (mainly Europe)
    – Services: Dedicated, cloud, virtual and various other services

    More info:

    Want to know how to run a relay? Check Run A Relay out.
    If you are familiar with Ansible, be sure to use ansible-relayor.
  • Dedicated hardware, with high GHz CPU cores and an unmetered network port, is the most important for Tor relays. Obviously, with the vast amount of traffic that transits the Tor network you are going to need powerful hardware, as Tor is quite resource intensive with all the encrypting and decrypting being done on the fly. You absolutely do not want noisy neighbors, commonly seen on VPS/VM providers.

    Hardware specifics to look for:
    – 3GHz+ CPU cores with at least 1 core per relay.
    – 2 GB+ of DDR3 (or higher) RAM per relay.
    – A dedicated network uplink to your provider. Bonus points for an unmetered port where you are not charged for overages.
  • Look for a stable network. Look for a provider with a stable network, that doesn’t commonly experience congestion. Congestion, and packet loss can provide a horrible experience for users on the Tor network, resulting in a slow browsing experience with timeouts.

    Network specifics to look for:
    – A well peered hosting provider with multiple public/private peerings and public transit upstreams (think; Cogent, GTT, Telia, Lumen, etc), so that you can reach Tor network users and other relays at a low latency (which improves overall Tor network performance)
    – A provider that experiences a lower level of network congestion, which results in your ability to use your full port speed most of the time. As the Tor network uses the protocol; TCP, it is important to have a consistent good and reliable network to prevent excess TCP re-transmissions, which increases latency.

Legal

Legality is important, so make sure you are following laws in your country to stay within the law.

  1. Operate your own LLC, non-profit, company, or corporation. This allows you to part yourself from your Tor exit relays. While you are obviously running them, a legally formed organization will provide you with some legal protections depending on where you live.
  2. Always follow up with serious abuse complaints or subpoenas from law enforcement. This is important, and allows you to continue operating your network as a legitimate netizen. Do take abuse complaints seriously, and try to provide advice to the reporter about the Tor network and how they can circumvent future abuse. If needed, you can also disallow users from utilizing various network ports (such as port 22 used for SSH, a common source of abuse complaints) on your exit relays.

As our journey is ever evolving, we will attempt to add to this list when we discover more along the way. If you have a suggestion, feel free to contact us, and we’ll consider adding it as well.

G’day,
Z

Our vision of the Tor network

Internet usage has sky rocketed with COVID-19, and the internet is expanding, so are we. As you may have noticed, we have been putting a lot of work in to expand our Tor relay & bridge network. As of writing we have over 27 nodes which reside on a diverse set of networks. Today I would like to show you what our vision is for our segment of the Tor network and the network as a whole.

Some of our statistics

Tor is amazing, it provides a scalable and simple way to protect and anonymize your internet traffic. Whether it be purely layer 4 (e.g. TCP/UDP) or layer 7 (e.g. HTTP), the Tor network can route it. Tor does many things, but on a daily basis, it protects good people in censored and oppressed situations, providing a way for them to safely access the internet, and all for free with open source software. Because Tor is so great, it requires dedicated volunteers, relay and bridge operators to provide that bandwidth, CPU and RAM capacity. What’s so great is that we have so many individuals already donating their time and money to do this. However, I think we can do better. We should continue to expand the Tor network by providing more bandwidth and more reliable infrastructure for optimal routing with low latency and high throughput. Not only that, we should focus on diversifying the network and providing more relays and bridges running on top of diverse networks. That’s what we’d like to accomplish, and with everyone who loves what Tor does.

Sadly there are many relay operators that do not maintain their infrastructure well, falling behind on updates and doing little to no monitoring. By running stable and reliable Tor relays and bridges that vision of a better network ensues. We take into careful consideration potential ethical and security risks. The Tor Project team and community already protect against malicious operators and the network itself is diverse enough to handle that. However we should still do everything we can to protect the privacy of traffic that transits through our nodes. Our nodes run on top of various hosting providers, in various geographical locations. We favor providers that show a general respect for privacy and have a beefy network, no 100Mb/s rate limit with 1TB of bandwidth here. We also have our own ASN and IP space for exit relays: unredacted.org/about/network

To protect our nodes from compromise we do our best to harden against commonly exploited attack surfaces. Nothing fancy here, but we do our best at the moment. This requires a consistent state across all nodes. For this, we use Ansible (an automation tool) which allows you to automate the configuration of your computers. With this, we enforce a pretty strict SSH policy, iptables rules, packages that every node should have, Prometheus exporters, wireguard mesh (Tailscale), various others and the full configuration of our Tor daemons. For Tor automation, we use an Ansible playbook called ansible-relayor. All of this allows us to automate the configuration of our 27 Tor nodes, applying updates, and rotating keys just to name a few. Without this, manual configuration of 27 nodes would be an extremely painful and arduous process to say the least. In theory, we can now automate the configuration of every OS feature.

Protection is not the only thing, we need good monitoring too. To ensure consistent and reliable service, you just have to monitor your services. We make sure we have deep enough insight into our nodes, but without exposing any Tor user data. We do not log IPs, or analyze the netflows of our traffic. We collect basic metrics using Prometheus and node_exporter. Prometheus (+AlertManager) is configured to send notices through email for high CPU, RAM, disk, I/O load (and other things). We also have a 3rd party which notifies via email and SMS if something goes down. We hope to expand this in the future so that we can also collect route and packet loss statistics from outside sources that are looking into our network. Packet loss is a large cause of high latency, any way we can reduce that on our network would be crucial as the Tor network is typically already higher latency.

Now, how have we been doing so far? See for yourself! We made publicly accessible graphs and data points that show the utilization of our nodes. We’d like to be as transparent as possible, so these metrics do not contain any revealing info.

grafana.ulayer.net/d/p6X51lM7k/unredacted-tor-nodes?orgId=1&from=now-30d&to=now

The past 30 days as of writing

As you could imagine, all of this requires funding to do. We ask that you help us build a better Tor network through your support and donations, or run your own node.

If you choose to donate, we accept many forms of payment, in addition to cryptocurrency. To donate, please visit our Donation page. Your donation will make a visible impact on the Tor network through our metrics. If you wish to be notified what your funds went to, we can give you the breakdown.

Thanks for your time,
Z