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Is there a way to set up an ssh tunnel, then connect an arbitrary program (say, an IRC client) to the port on localhost and get an effectively secure connection to a server? How would I go about doing this?

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Yes. Anything tunneled via SSH will be encrypted. Note however that the protection is of course just only between the two points you build up your tunnel up. So to have a completely secure IRC connection with a SSH Tunnel you would have to build a tunnel to the IRC Server itself.

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