Redeeming the darknet in five examples
The darknet is often seen as the Cain to the internet’s Abel, as a hub for weapons and drugs and a paradise for paedophiles and terrorists. But, as it turns out, it’s not really so dark after all.
By Daniel Wendorf & Benedikt Plass-Fleßenkämper
The term “darknet” is commonly associated with evil machinations, especially because illegal darknet platforms like Silk Road and AlphaBay have attracted lots of media attention for pedalling drugs, weapons and human organs. This hidden part of the net was quickly condemned as a wicked place, with one German politician even calling it an “island of lawlessness”. All of which very effectively demonstrated how many people truly do not understand what it is all about.
Is the darknet the internet’s dark side?
The term darknet refers to online communication and activity that is anonymous and only accessible via Tor another special browser. Darknets use encryption technologies to establish connections between two users manually and purposefully, rather than arbitrarily. Using a computer or mobile device, one person can contact another by directly linking their two IP addresses, which allows users to communicate or exchange data without anyone looking over their shoulders. Additional contacts can be added to any private network, though each network remains cut-off from the conventional internet. Users only interact with other like-minded users in the secure space created on one of the many large and small darknets on the internet.
Generally speaking, there are many good reasons people have to have access to secure online exchange in these times of increasing surveillance. Here are a few examples of how closed networks and Tor technology can be used for good:
Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning probably top the list of well-known whistleblowers who have disclosed questionable government machinations. Former CIA employee Snowden unveiled the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) escalating global surveillance activities. Former US soldier Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Manning following sex-reassignment surgery, turned over half a million US war documents from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Wikileaks platform for publication. While neither Snowden nor Manning used the darknet to keep their identities a secret, they inspired other people around the globe to follow their lead and expose all kinds of wrongdoing. This is easier and safer to do if you can cover your own tracks. A program like the Tor browser can help and is used by whistleblowers worldwide.
Secure drops for newsrooms
Television news and newspapers depend on informants for certain types of information, informants who often prefer to remain anonymous for their own safety. Journalists are committed to protecting their sources, so every major newsroom has established a secure way people can send materials or contact staff confidentially. Dailies like Britain’s the Guardian, the New York Times, and Germany’s tageszeitung (taz) have created secure drops using the Tor .onion extension so users can upload documents without disclosing their IP addresses. Large NGOs such as Greenpeace also use the technology.
Globally many activist groups depend on secure communication channels to coordinate their activities. Regional chapters of the Chaos Computer Club hacker collective, for example, use .onion pages for all internal communication. Systemli.org touts itself as a “non-commercial provider for data-protection-friendly communication”. The German initiative included protecting political activists in its mission statement, and offers e-mail, cloud and hosting services for individuals and organizations in part through .onion addresses. US counterpart Riseup.net offers similar services.
Launched by Open Garden in 2014, the FireChat messenger service was an immediate darling of the “anonymous scene” the very same year. During the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong, the Chinese government shut down the mobile phone network in large parts of the city to block communication between activists. FireChat proved to be a good alternative communication option, as it turns any smartphone it is installed on into a communication node in a decentralized network. The app enabled thousands of demonstrators in Hong Kong to stay connected and coordinate activities despite mobile phone network shutdowns.
While many assume Facebook is available anywhere in the world, that is not entirely true. In some countries the site is either not accessible at all or subject to strict government controls. Facebook set up a special Tor page in 2014 to bypass censorship and blocked access.
The deep web
Deep web is term often associated with and misused as a synonym for the darknet. It refers to the part of the internet not discoverable by standard search engines, which do not have the technical capacities to index the websites hosted there. And while it may sound like just a marginal fraction of the world wide web, a 2001 study showed that the data volume of the deep web is anywhere from 400 to 500 times larger than that of the surface web, the publically accessible internet most users are familiar with. A large part of the net remains hidden from the general surfing public, and even government agencies find it difficult to map the activities there. Interestingly, most people are entirely unaware that they regularly use the deep web in their everyday lives. Anyone who has accessed a library catalogue online, for example, has accessed the deep web. Media holdings are not available to search engine crawlers; only registered library patrons can sign in to the catalogue, taking them into the deep web.
How to access the darknet: Tor software
Originally an acronym for “the onion router”, Tor is the best-known software for anonymizing data on the internet. The network that protects journalists today was originally designed to safeguard the identities of US agents and armed forces online. Cambridge University launched the project in 2000 with financial backing from the US military, and a non-profit organization took over the still quite cutting-edge technology in 2006. Today activists all over the world use Tor and other similar software to coordinate members and expose illegal or immoral activities. But in countries like China, where internet access is closely regulate and controlled, government agencies have already developed methods for shutting down Tor.