Android users worried about privacy and anonymity have been able to use Tor on their phones thanks to popular apps made by a group of digital rights advocates for a long time. But Android isn't the most secure operating system out there, which can expose activists or whistleblowers using these apps to hackers or government spies.
Now, these paranoid Android users have a new way to use Tor more securely thanks to a completely separate and isolated virtual phone within their phone. This "Tor Space" will feature the same apps that can already be used on regular Android phones, such as Orbot and Orfox, but it's designed to run on a siloed separate partition with no access to other data stored on the phone.
The idea is to give people who use Tor on their cell phone an extra layer of protection.
Graphite Software, the company behind the virtual phone technology known as "Secure Spaces," launched Tor Space on Wednesday. Secure Spaces essentially allow users to create separate containers or virtual machines within one phone where users can isolate and compartmentalize their workflow and data.
The idea is to give people who use Tor on their cell phone an extra layer of protection. If they get hacked while using this Tor Space, the hackers, at least in theory, should not have access to other data on the phone and shouldn't be able to easily unmask the user.
"If you're serious about Tor and if you're serious about anonymity or privacy it just makes sense to make those apps in an isolated space," Robert Grapes, an executive at Graphite Software, the company that created Tor Space, told Motherboard. "They work perfectly well but they don't have access to your contacts, your emails, or any other application that you consider to be important."
Tor Space comes pre-loaded with several privacy apps: Orbot, Orfox, ObscuraCam, ChatSecure and PixelKnot. As a security precaution, the Tor Space has Google Play, Bluetooth, NFC, the microphone, all locations services and the ability to take screenshots disabled by default, according to Graphite Software.
Users who are even more paranoid can create a Tor Space within their phone and make it hidden. This way, the space doesn't appear on any regular screen, and can only be accessed by typing a pin code within, for example, a special calculator app.
The bad news is that Tor Space not available for all Android users just yet. Tor Space will be free to download for users who own the Blackphone 2 (the ability to have separate spaces was probably my favorite feature on the privacy-minded phone), the little-known Coolpad TipTop Max, as well as those who have the Nexus 5, but only if they are using the Secure Spaces System ROM. To get it, users need a certain degree of technical know-how to root the device and install it.
"If they can make it work, then it is an impressive technical feat."
Nathan Freitas, the founder of the Guardian Project, which makes many of the apps that will be on the Tor Space, compared Secure Spaces to the security-minded operating system Qubes, which is seen by security experts as perhaps the best operating system if you're worried about getting hacked. But has the drawback that it's probably not for the everyday user.
"This Secure Space technology isn't for everyone," Nathan Freitas, the founder of the Guardian Project, told me in an email. "But if they can make it work, then it is an impressive technical feat, and something that a certain segment of people will definitely want."