What is the dark web?
If you spend most of your screen time loitering on Facebook, Snapchat and email then you’ve only ever scratched the surface of the internet. There is an additional layer known as the dark web that allows people to circumvent surveillance and move around online without traceability. The original software, The Onion Router (TOR), was developed by US Naval Research Laboratory employees Paul Syverson, Michael Reed and David Goldschlag in the mid 1990s to protect the identity of US Navy intelligence agents.
Why did The Onion Router (TOR) become available to the public?
Navy intelligence officers aren’t hard to find if they’re the only people using it. The network had to be accessible for the general public so that officers could operate in a diverse crowd. Computer scientists Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson further refined TOR with Syverson in 2003 and it was released under free licence in 2004. At this time the US Navy cut ties with the TOR project, but the US Government continued to provide funding.
It also enabled intelligence officers to go deeper undercover simultaneously. The US Navy continues to use it for open source intelligence leads in the US and also used it while soldiers were deployed in the Middle East. When it opened to the public, TOR became an appealing tool for people dabbling in illegal activities to trade goods.
Further reading: pando.com
How does The Onion Router (TOR) work?
When a person uses TOR, their IP address is hidden and movements are bounced around to a number of servers, so that a direct journey from site A to site B can’t be tracked. The data that is accumulated from the start point to the destination is covered in onion-like layers making the user’s activity invisible and allowing anonymity.
Who enables this anonymity?
Today TOR is a not-for-profit organisation run by Roger Dingledine, Nick Mathewson and a number of volunteers. TOR volunteers are responsible for hiding the users’ IP address by acting as an ‘exit node’ and using their IP address in the place of the TOR user. Because these operators must use a traceable personal IP address, they risk having their homes raided by police because of the nature of materials linked to what passes through. Why would they do this? It’s a form of activism. They believe in people’s right to privacy.
Further reading: motherboard.vice.com
Who’s footing the bill?
As a not-for-profit, TOR relies on donations from a selection of organisations. To date it has received more than 4300 personal donations. Donors in 2015 include Reddit, Free Radio Asia and an anonymous northern American internet service provider. US Government departments including the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour continue to provide funding.
What is it used for?
The dark web’s anonymity enabled people to conduct prohibited activities, the most successful of those being Silk Road, a marketplace for the trade of illegal goods. Approximately one million people using Silk Road made Bitcoin transactions that are estimated at US $1 billion. It launched in 2011 and was shut down by the FBI in 2013. In February 2015, Ross William Ulbricht was convicted of seven charges for being the site’s founder. In May 2015 he was sentenced to life in prison. Despite this, many traders continue to operate similar businesses in the dark web.
But it’s not all black market trading. Former US National Security Agency employee, Edward Snowden, used it to leak information about the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program to the media in 2013. Facebook wants in on the action, too, having launched a dark web page that gives users a chance to access the site without surveillance concerns. It could be of value to people in countries including North Korea and China, where access is blocked.
Further reading: wired.com
Resetting the dark web’s reputation
To battle through a significant negative perception problem, the TOR team hired public relations firm Thomson Communications to promote TOR’s burgeoning partnership with Mozilla.
This is far from a spin operation; it’s a chance for TOR to push its campaign to give people the right to protect their data. TOR’s internal media professional, Kate Krauss, recently told the Daily Dot: ‘Dark web colours the way people think about what we’re doing.’ Instead, replacement names like ‘onionspace’ have been tossed around. That’s important because a number of companies are interested in using TOR software to give people private browsing options. According to the TOR blog, they’re partnering with Mozilla to incorporate more privacy features into Mozilla’s products. ’We appreciate companies like Mozilla that see the importance of safeguarding privacy,’ the post said.
Further reading: dailydot.com
Light at the end of the dark web
This software enables much more than seedy trading. It increases the awareness of data retention and reinforces the message that people have a right to privacy and encourages more software developers to follow suit. Bittorrent recently released Bleep, a messaging service that doesn’t have a central server and therefore undermines data retention laws. While software such as TOR doesn’t pose any serious threat to existing mainstream internet, its mere existence raises questions about data retention and our right to privacy in the digital age.
Why is online privacy important?
You wouldn’t hand personal information to a stranger, but you run the risk of inadvertently doing so the more you rely on the internet. Our transactions and data usage are all traceable and hackable, too. Digital crime and fraud is rising as our online activity intensifies. In addition, data retention laws were passed in Australian Federal Parliament in March 2015.
These laws enable telecommunications companies to retain records of your internet use for two years and provide access to security agencies. Professor Matthew Warren, Deakin University’s Director of Research and Chair of Information Systems, says it doesn’t necessarily mean the government will be trawling your records for dirt. Ideally, they will use this data to protect people. ’People have a right to privacy to a certain extent, but governments have a duty of care to protect the population against criminals and terrorists in a physical or online context and this could impact personal privacy,’ he says.
Further reading: abc.net.au
What can individuals do to protect their privacy?
- don’t assume anything online is private
- strengthen your passwords and think twice before sharing private details online
- if keeping your data use private is important to you make sure you are aware of the Australian Privacy Laws and how they relate to you.