This VPN-killer aims to make internet connections private by default, without sacrificing speed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 7:14am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 7:14am

Hornet, a new technological breakthrough by researchers in London and Switzerland, claims it can make remaining anonymous online easier and faster while better protecting people’s privacy.

This spells good news for internet users, especially in the wake of recent revelations about government surveillance, but trouble for slower virtual private networks (VPNs), which could lose their competitive advantage.

Researchers at Swiss university ETH Zurich and University College London say the tool they have developed can not only one-up VPNs like Astrill, but also Tor, a popular system that lets users communicate anonymously on the internet.

Like Tor, Hornet bounces network requests through a series of encrypted relays, making them hard to identify or track. But Hornet offers one key difference: speed.

A slowdown in internet browsing speeds is one of the biggest headaches when using tools designed to protect online privacy or dodge internet filters like China's Great Firewall, especially for data-heavy tasks like gaming or streaming video.

But the European researchers estimate that, if implemented, Hornet could move anonymous internet traffic at speeds of up to 93 gigabits per second, making it essentially imperceptible to all but the most data-hungry of users.

ETH Zurich's David Barrera said his team wanted to design a service that could handle "millions of users simultaneously".

Around two million people use Tor every day at average speeds of around 500 kilobytes per second, far slower than the pace Hornet promises.

But whereas Tor offers easy-to-use apps that can run on any computer, Hornet must be installed at the network level to operate effectively.

"We are in the early stage of building future internet routers that have Hornet functionality built in," Barrera said.

Barrera warned that the system is vulnerable to attack if an adversary controls one or more nodes that traffic is being sent to, which would allow them to analyse the data and work out who is using the tool. This could be performed by a government or law enforcement agency.

Such attacks have been proven successful against Tor in the past.

One major hurdle thwarting Hornet’s hopes of displacing Tor is that the technology must be implemented by people’s internet service providers at the network level. 

Barrera said he hopes the team can work with privacy friendly ISPs in the US and Europe. 

However, this would make it almost impossible for Hornet to be implemented in China and other countries where the internet is restricted.