Future Tools: Tor and the Dark Web

easyDNS is pleased to sponsor Jesse Hirsh‘s “Future Fibre / Future Tools” segments of his new email list, Metaviews.

How to connect to the digital underground and why

The Internet is an inherent surveillance system that attempts to track everything you do, hence the first step: login, meaning you’re now in the log.

However from a technical perspective this does not need to be the case. A private and secure Internet is possible, and remarkably easy to obtain, provided we’re willing to pay attention and learn the appropriate literacies.

The phase “dark web” is often evoked to describe a part of the Internet that is private, possibly anonymous, and fraught with peril. Yet once again this is a myth used to prevent people from understanding what’s available to them, in particular increased privacy.

Instead, fear is used to keep people away from the forbidden zone, that promised land where privacy is the default.

The dark web is now this place referred to whenever crime happens online. It’s that back alley where stolen items are fenced, or stashed, and anything is available for a price.

Let’s begin our own exploration of the dark web by looking at its definition. Initially the phrase was used to describe the dominance of search engines in our experience and perception of the Internet. That anything not indexed and available via a search engine was therefore part of this mysterious and expansive deep or dark web.

This original definition included anything not in a search engine, whether some email, password protected websites, or even sites with appropriately configured robots.txt files that dissuaded search engines from poking around.

However the use of the phrase dark web in the popular culture evolved significantly from its technical or SEO origins, largely amplified by news organizations and journalists. It went from being a description of how search engines govern the Internet, to a smokey and mysterious part of our society that is and should remain impenetrable.

When it comes to language, you have to pick your battles, what with it being a virus and all. Hence there’s no point in trying to shift the meaning of the dark web back to its search engine centric origins.

Rather let’s appropriate the media description and acknowledge that the dark web is the part of the web that involves the use of strong encryption and potentially privacy maybe even anonymity.

In this case the dark refers to privacy, but what if we called it the private web. Or the secure web. Or the better web. That might make people understand the value and opportunity it offers. That the dark web ought to be the primary web, and the web we use by default, day in and day out.

While there are different methods and services that you can use to protect yourself and connect to a better web, one of the more popular, reliable, and available, is Tor, a/k/a The Onion Routing Network.

Tor is free and open source software, and the Tor Network is operated by volunteers around the world using that software, making it possible for people to randomize their Internet traffic and potentially protect their identity and activity.

An interesting bit of history, the original authors of the Tor white paper were from the US Naval Research Lab, and their goal was to create a secure communications system to be used by US intelligence agencies. The US government has been one of the largest funders of the Tor project, although they’re not involved in its operation or governance.

Networks are generally comprised of servers, that provide services and information, and clients, that connect and engage those services and information. While there are a wide range of services currently being offered via Tor, some of the more recent additions are news organizations:

News organizations are embracing these tools because they recognize their invaluable role in facilitating leaks and the secure release of whistle blower documents.

Therefore let us assume, just for argument’s sake, that the primary reason you would use Tor or the dark web is to read the news or help supply information to journalists. Innocent enough? 🙂

The easiest way for you to connect to the dark web is by using the Tor Browser. The browser is like any other browser, only it comes with and is configured to use Tor so as to route your traffic into the Tor network. Based on Mozilla’s Firefox browser, you can install the Tor Browser on Windows, OSX, Linux, and even Android.

Using the Tor Browser will make it possible for you to connect to servers on the Tor network which have an address that ends in .onion.

There are a range of ways to find sites that exist within the dark web. There are publicly available directories, and the /r/onions subreddit. There’s also “hidden wikis” which are a combination of knowledge repository and honey trap.

However this is where it is important to remind you that connecting to the dark web (via Tor Browser for instance) does not make you anonymous. It increases your privacy by obfuscating your activity and location, but there are other means by which you can still be identified.

This graphical example provided by eff.org on the link below helps illustrate some of the many ways your information can be compromised (or protected):

If anonymity was really something you desired, then the next step would be to install a secure operating system. Tails is an example of a Linux based system that forces all incoming and outgoing connections to go through Tor.

However even having a secure operating system is not enough. You’d want to consider using a VPN, and maybe only connect on networks that you do not connect to without all of these surveillance counter measures.

Even then it may not be enough to achieve anonymity.

Although I don’t think that achieving anonymity is the point. Rather increasing people’s ability to protect their privacy is what’s important here.

You should be using Tor to make it harder for people to track and stalk you. You should be using Tor to make it easier for other people to protect their privacy. You should be using Tor because privacy should be the default setting of the Internet.

“Future Tools” is a recurring series in the Metaviews newsletter where we share some of the tools and concepts that you’ll need to protect yourself in the now and near future.

“Future Tools” is sponsored by easyDNS.

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3 thoughts on “Future Tools: Tor and the Dark Web

  1. I’ll note that EasyDNS blocks Tor exit nodes, full stop, even if they aren’t exit nodes anymore. It’s unfortunate that the EasyDNS policy is at odds with the sponsored blogger’s post.

    1. It is true we do block Tor exit nodes, a practice we started when we were specifically DDoS-ed through the Tor network, coupled with an elevated level of fraud when domains are purchased via Tor.

      I don’t see this at odds with anything. The Tor is a good tool when visiting websites where you don’t want to be tracked, retargeted or have the fact that you are viewing certain material (for whatever reason), known.

      Now if you are going to go commence a business relationship with another party, one that involves the exchange of funds, it’s perfectly within the purview of either side to require a certain level of accountability to their counter-party. If a specific input brings primarily suboptimal outcomes, then it is unsurprising that the counter-party will decline to take part. This is an example of “tragedy of the commons” as applied to the dark web, I guess.

      IPs that are no longer Tor nodes should be allowed and if they aren’t, then it’s a bug. Feel free to open a ticket or just email me at markjr@myprivacy.ca and we’ll take a look.

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