Septor 2021Septor is a Linux distribution which provides users with a pre-configured computing environment for surfing the Internet anonymously. It is based on Debian's Testing branch and it uses Privoxy, a privacy-enhancing proxy, together with the Tor anonymity network to modify web page data and HTTP headers before the page is rendered by the browser. The distribution uses KDE Plasma as the preferred desktop environment and it also includes the Tor Browser for anonymous web browsing and OnionShare for file sharing.
Septor is in the same family of distributions as Tails, which we talked about last year. Tails is also Debian-based and is intended to be used for anonymous web browsing and file sharing. One of the big differences between the two projects is Tails uses the GNOME desktop while Septor uses KDE Plasma. Another difference is Tails is typically run as a live distribution from a USB thumb drive, often with persistent storage. Septor, on the other hand, can either be used as a standard live disc or installed to a hard drive via Debian's system installer.
Septor is available in one edition for 64-bit (x86_64) computers. The ISO file we download is 1.8GB in size. Booting from this media brings up a menu asking if we would like to run the live desktop or launch the installer. When running in UEFI mode just one install option was visible, but in Legacy BIOS mode I could select either a graphical installer or a text installer.
Taking the live option brings up a graphical login screen. We are shown a mostly empty screen that tells us we can sign in to the live desktop using the password "live". There are drop-down menus for choosing our session type (only KDE Plasma is available) and our keyboard layout (only US is available). Signing into the default user account brings up the Plasma desktop with a blue background. A panel sits at the bottom of the display. The desktop is fairly quiet and empty, though browsing through the application menu presents us with several useful tools I will talk about later. We are automatically connected to the Tor network when we open a web browser or other tool, allowing us to browse the web with a degree of anonymity.
Septor 2021 -- Exploring the application menu (full image size: 715kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
One feature of Septor I found unusual is there is a weather widget in the desktop panel. The reason I found this odd is weather is highly localized in its context. Meaning if we tell the weather widget where we are to get useful weather information, then we are no longer acting in an anonymous fashion on-line and can be linked to a location. However if we do not tell the weather widget our location then the weather information it provides will likely be useless. It's a little like installing a VPN client on a phone and leaving the GPS function enabled, it seems to be self-defeating. I checked, out of curiosity, and discovered the weather widget displays data for New York City.
There was no obvious way to install the distribution from the live desktop. We can restart the computer and select one of the installer options from the boot menu if we wish to customize and then run Septor on a regular basis.
Septor uses Debian's installer which is, as far as I can tell, virtually unmodified. Apart from skipping some of the base package options, everything from selecting our language and keyboard layout, disk partitioning, and setting up user accounts seemed to be exactly the same experience as what plain Debian provides.
On a side note, I observed that this installer is somewhat unusual in that it does not set the noatime filesystem flag when taking the guided partitioning option. This flag can improve disk performance and life span while disabling it rarely has any negative side-effects, except when using a few specific tools. Most of the systems I have checked in recent years use noatime by default.
When I began using Septor it was running in VirtualBox. The distribution provided good performance in the virtual machine. Its boot time was fairly average, but desktop performance was quite good. I believe Septor makes a reasonable choice in disabling file indexing, which I suspect both improves performance and reduces the chance of leaking information. The KDE Plasma desktop properly resized itself automatically to fit the VirtualBox window.
When I switched over to running Septor on my laptop the distribution again ran smoothly. It was able to boot in either Legacy BIOS or UEFI mode. The Plasma desktop was very responsive and all of my hardware was properly detected. The distribution disables taps as clicks on the touchpad by default, however taps (and other gestures) can be enabled in the System Settings panel.
One of the only problems I encountered with the distribution was a minor one. When opening the network manager widget it would show a list of nearby wireless networks. This was to be as expected. However, in busy areas the list of available networks would refresh rapidly, sometimes so quickly I would find myself clicking on the wrong network two or three times as they reshuffled themselves. It was not a serious issue and one which mostly went away while I was home.
Septor is average in its resource usage, requiring about 630MB of RAM when logged into the Plasma desktop. A fresh install of the distribution, should we wish to run it from the hard drive, requires 5.8GB of space, not including swap space.
Septor ships with a variety of useful software that covers a range of functionality. The distribution offers the Tor Browser and OnionShare, which I will talk about later. The HexChat IRC client is available along with the Thunderbird e-mail client. LibreOffice and KOrganizer are installed along with two contact managers. The KDE Connect software is installed to share information between devices.
Septor 2021 -- The Tor Browser privacy add-ons (full image size: 326kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
The QuiteRSS feed reader is available along with the GNU Image Manipulation Program. The Dolphin file manager is present along with the K3b disc burning software and the VLC media player. The Okular document viewer is installed alongside the Eqonomize accounting program. (Side note to application developers: Please do not name your applications things like Eqonomize, it is hard to tell people how to find your website and it makes my spell checker cry.)
To assist Septor in its goal to provide privacy, the distribution ships with the zuluCrypt volume manager which can access encrypted storage. We are also given the Kleopatra certificate manager and the KGpg encryption tool. Septor ships with the KDE System Settings panel and a full compliment of manual pages. In the background the distribution runs the systemd init software and version 5.9 of the Linux kernel.
Earlier I mentioned two special tools which ship with Septor. One is the Tor Browser, a Firefox-based browser that redirects its traffic through the Tor network. The Tor Browser includes several useful add-ons, including the HTTPS Everywhere extension, NoScript, and uBlock Origin. These tools help keep our network traffic encrypted while stripping out a lot of scripts and ads which could otherwise be used to track our on-line activity.
Browsing through the Tor network is mostly anonymous, but it is also slow. Users may also run into firewalls or websites which block traffic from commonly used exit nodes. There are some inconveniences to trying to travel the web anonymously.
I found it interesting that the Tor Browser saves downloads in a directory called "Downloads", but it is not the Downloads directory in our user's home. Instead it is buried several levels down in .local/share/tor-browser_en-US/Browser/Downloads. This made it a little confusing when I went to find items I had downloaded. The web browser is not sandboxed, it can save to other locations in our user's home, it just doesn't. I'm not sure why this default was selected, but it is inconvenient.
Septor 2021 -- Digging down to the default location for saved files (full image size: 142kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
OnionShare is the other special application Septor includes. The OnionShare application has evolved a lot in recent years. This tool makes it quite easy to share files (and now receive files) over the Tor network. To share files we can pick a few files we want to send out to someone. OnionShare then creates a unique URL for us. We can copy this URL and send it to someone or post it on-line. The other person then connects to this URL through the Tor Browser. Our computer waits and serves up the file (or files) to the first person to connect to our URL. Once the files have been downloaded the service closes, preventing additional people from obtaining the file.
Receiving files through OnionShare works much the same way. We can click a button to enable receiving files through OnionShare at which point we are given a custom URL. Anyone we give this special URL to can open it in the Tor Browser and it will display a web page that accepts file uploads. Any files people choose to send us are stored in the OnionShare directory in our home. Each file is saved under its own set of sub-directories stamped with the current date and time. We can click another button in OnionShare to terminate the receiving process.
In the past I sometimes had trouble getting OnionShare to work properly, but it was all smooth sailing this time and the application worked beautifully. I like that we can both share and receive files without worrying about setting up a domain, using a chat program, or adjusting firewall settings.
When it comes to browsing and sharing files anonymously, I feel Septor comes with just about everything it needs. We have ways to encrypt (or decrypt) files, browse anonymously, transfer files, and chat on-line. We can also work with encrypted storage volumes. One of the few items I felt might be missing was a tool to scrub meta data from files. Should we wish to install new software or update existing packages we can use the APT command line tools or the Synaptic graphical package manager. Synaptic may not be much to look at, but it handled installing, removing, and upgrading software. It also allows us to configure repositories. I used Synaptic a few times and found it ran smoothly with no surprises.
Septor 2021 -- Installing new packages with Synaptic and using the Dolphin file manager (full image size: 430kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
I went into my trial with Septor expecting to have access to most of the same tools I would with Tails and to have roughly the same experience. However, I found (to my pleasure) that I was mistaken. While Tails is a well put together distribution and quite easy to use and set up as a live distribution, I found Septor to be more accessible and, in a sense, more familiar.
On the surface this may be counter-intuitive. Tails has a smaller download, lots of wonderful documentation, and a more simple interface. The two projects have the same Debian base, include much of the same key functionality and are about evenly matched when it comes to memory usage. So what makes me enjoy Septor more?
What I think it boils down to is Tails is a great appliance. A person can download Tails to a USB stick, plug it into a computer, and have a simple, streamlined, anonymous web browsing experience. Then we can unplug the stick and the appliance experience is done.
While Septor can be used in this manner - written to a thumb drive and used as a live distribution - I feel Septor is less like an appliance and more of a general purpose tool. Septor has a wider array of applications, it is designed to be installed to a hard drive if we want to use it full-time. While Tails has a very streamlined, appliance-like desktop, courtesy of GNOME, Septor has a very flexible, classic-style desktop through KDE Plasma. In my tests Septor's desktop was much more responsive than Tails and its range of customization makes it a welcome option for people like me who like to adjust tools to suit them.
In short, for people who want a temporary live distribution they can use once (or on-demand) and then stop using, then Tails is probably the better choice. For people with less computing experience or who want an uncluttered, guided experience, Tails is probably better. However, for people who want to install their anonymous tools locally, or who want to customize their desktop, or who need more tools pre-installed, then Septor is probably the better fit.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast