I first heard about Anonabox on Monday, Oct. 13 and immediately decided to back the effort. The promise of Anonabox was that the project would design a purpose-built device to enable the Tor onion router network, that enables a degree of user privacy and anonymity.
On Oct. 17, at approximately 1 p.m. ET, the Kickstarter crowdfunding organization suspended the Anonabox project.
Why did Kickstarter put a stop to the project after raising more than $600,000 in funding for it?
“It’s our policy to not comment on individual projects,” Kickstarter representative David Gallagher wrote in an email to eWEEK.
That said, Gallagher provided a link that details Kickstarter’s policies on suspension. That policy stipulates that a project may be suspended if there is a misrepresentation or failure to disclose relevant facts. The policy allows for suspension if the project’s creator is presenting someone else’s work as their own.
In the case of Anonabox, after I first backed the project, I sent an email to the project’s creator August Germar about the technical specifications of the device. The original Kickstarter Web page for the project doesn’t provide much detail and only indicates that the project went through four generations of development.
“Each generation, the board size was reduced by half and the processor speed and system resources were doubled,” the Kickstarter page states. “The first generation was the only one with off-the-shelf hardware.”
The claim that the Anonabox was not off-the-shelf hardware is the one that first got the project into trouble and likely is also a key reason it was suspended. A discussion thread on Reddit, identified that the prototype picture used for the Anonabox, was in fact an off-the-shelf piece of hardware that is already available for $20. The Anonabox project was looking to sell its device for a minimum of $45.
Germar actually took to Reddit himself in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session that ended up exposing further discrepancies in his Anonabox claims.
Even before Kickstarter made its move on Oct 17 to suspend the project, many backers, including me, decided to pull their support from the project. Simply put, the project I originally backed offered the promise of a purpose-built device to help enable anonymity and privacy on the Internet. What the project was likely actually doing was loading free software onto cheap commodity hardware that is already publicly available.
“It’s important to note that on Kickstarter, backers aren’t charged until a project’s funding period ends, and then only if the project has reached its goal,” Kickstarter’s Gallagher stated. “We work hard to safeguard the long-term health and integrity of the Kickstarter system.”
What the Anonabox episode serves to highlight, though, is the simple fact that there is a great hunger in the marketplace for easily deployed privacy solutions. The promise of Anonabox—that anyone could just plug into the Anonabox and get privacy—is a very attractive concept.
While the Anonabox has failed on Kickstarter, it’s important to note that there are other ways that users can achieve what Anonabox was offering.
One such technology is the OnionPi router project that pairs the small Raspberry Pi ARM computer with Tor to enable an anonymizing device for users. The OnionPi can be built by anyone with a Raspberry Pi device, or it can be bought from Adafruit for $89.95.
Going a step further, the Tor project itself has its own Tor Browser, which users can easily installed to provide privacy. The Tor browser is free and can be installed on any Windows, Mac OS X or Linux machine.
If the Anonabox project had properly represented itself from the beginning as being just an easier way to run Tor, I don’t suspect the backlash would have been nearly as severe. In the modern IT world, there is a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to security-related technologies, and that ultimately led to Anonabox’s downfall. Users want privacy, but they also want to be able to trust those who claim to offer privacy to them.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.