Has the time to become anonymous on the internet arrived? Across the planet, governments are becoming increasingly sketchy about internet freedoms and privacy. In the UK, the Draft Communications Bill (nicknamed the "snooper's charter") was announced during the Queen's speech yesterday (May 9), which will allow the government and police to monitor what you're doing online, and to pull your emails and phone numbers from it at will. 2009's favourite file-sharing site The Pirate Bay is now effectively banned from Britain and rich men in the United States who don't understand the internet keep trying to fathom a bunch of acronyms into existence (SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, NDAA and, most recently, CISPA) that are intent on stealing yr web away.
Soon, governments and militaries might be able to access the information that companies such as Facebook and Google hold about us. Those companies hold a lot of information, so this is something to worry about, and it seems unlikely that this shitstorm will blow through any time soon. The internet is changing, so maybe the way we use it will have to change too. Maybe we'll have to start hiding a bit more.
One way to hide on the internet is to use Tor. Tor was mentioned in a recent article on VICE about the “deep web”. FYI, the “deep web”, “dark net” or “hidden web” are names for the sub-terrain of primordial internet gloop not accessible through search engines. The most common metaphor I've seen used to present the deep web is that it's like the much larger part of an iceberg that hides underwater.
A website on the deep web claiming to have Area 51 archives. I can't wait till these guys see it, they're gonna be pretty excited.
When I found out about Tor and the deep web, I immediately got excited. Not only was I free from the prying gaze of the authorities, there was also a whole new world of uncensored web for me to discover. However, instead of some Situationist Northwest Passage, what I actually found was a bunch of crappy blogs on conspiracy theories, an anonymous market called the Silk Road (largely used for drugs) and a whooole load of links to child porn that I did not want to go anywhere the fuck near. Also, most of the website addresses – even the halfway legal ones – look like this: 923289sdf71497102sd49723.onion (no joke). Which I found distracting.
Some "Afghan Brown Heroin" for sale on Silk Road.
I decided that I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, because after 12 years online, I'm still a mainstream internet n00b. So, I called up Andrew Lewman, who works at the Tor project, to talk about the deep web and what all the evil government meddling might mean.
The first thing he explained to me was that, "Tor is based on a protocol called 'onion routing'. Onion routing was a project carried out by the US Naval Research Labs in the 1990s. The goal was to defeat traffic analysis, which is the ability to see who you talk to, how often and how much data you send.” The Navy let it go live on the internet because the more people using Tor, “the harder it is to pick out which individuals are using it. If the navy used Tor as the 'navy anonymity network', you would still know it was the navy.”
An occult-inspired organised crime syndicate lurking, like Cthulhu, in the deepest depths (of the web).
While Tor has the ability to allow people anonymous and uncensored internet access in countries like Iran and China, it's also widely used by hackers and seems to have been an important tool during the Arab Spring. Turns out it was developed by the US military. Sounds about fucked up enough to be true.
I asked Andrew about the motivations behind the project, given its Naval history. “If you remember, around 2000, 2001, there was a dotcom boom, and there were a tonne of companies who were giving way free services. By free they meant, 'We don't charge you money but we collect all your data and sell it everywhere.' What we wanted to do was give people the ability to control their information… They don't actually tell us why they started the project. It was mostly a research project… It still is a research project.
“We don't have any official 'mission'. Generally, everyone who works for Tor believes that our freedom is more valuable than anything else and that giving the user human control of their data is the best policy. Most of what Tor tries to do is to make you anonymous by default, so that you can decide which websites you trust and don't trust, but by default you don't trust any of them. People who come to work for Tor are naturally attracted to those sort of ethics.”
Assassinations for sale. No way of knowing if this is genuine or not - I guess you could try emailing them?
What Tor creates is essentially an amoral system. It can to be used for good, bad and a whole range of other unsavoury activity. The most shocking thing about the deep web is a lot of the content on there. How can you put up with child pornography for the sake of wider freedom? Just the descriptions of some of the links on The Hidden Wiki made me want to cry and move home. I put it in pretty strong terms to Andrew: was he not essentially contributing to the dissemination of paedophilic material?
“Do I sleep well at night, knowing all the bad stuff that can happen with Tor? The answer is yes. For every one bad person on Tor, there are likely tens of thousands of others that are successfully using it to do boring and mundane stuff. And we do work with law enforcement. I've spent lots of times working with the equivalent of your SOCA [Serious Organised Crime Agency]. The actual investigators who go after the child abusers and the human trafficking rings have a very different picture of technology than what you hear in the press. The US FBI has an anti-child abuse division. The biggest technology they've run into is digital cameras. That's when child porn really exploded.”
Hmmmmmmmmmm. I understand that you don't sell a car to someone thinking they might run someone over, but… I guess at least Tor do work with law enforcement. But then what stops them working with technology companies on things like copyright censorship? The waters seemed muddied.
Andrew tried to clear things up for me. “I think actually the technology is a red herring, because law enforcement target the humans on the end. Just like you saw with the recent FBI break of the LulzSec people, the offshoot of Anonymous. They didn't actually try to break Tor, they didn't actually try to break the encryption they were using. They went to break the human and get one of them to their side as an informant and then break apart everything else. Which is exactly how most successful law enforcement works.”
The deep web has yet to master photoshopping
At the moment, exploring the deep web is a mix of quite boring and very scary. However, it's also decentralised and not easy to control, and therefore potentially very useful. However disappointing/disturbing the deep web's contents may be to the average internet user, it's worth noting that you don't have to go near it. You can stay anonymous and use stuff that makes you happy, like celeb news websites and Google image searching your name. Although, if you start entering personal data or signing into sites like Facebook that's not gonna be the case. But if you're using Facebook at all and worrying about anonymity online, well, you're kinda a massive idiot (disclosure: I use Facebook everyday).
Despite Tor having no official political position, I wondered what Andrew thinks about legislation like CISPA. “We don't like it. Politicians generally work on things that sound good but anyone with any technical ability will see in an instant that anything they pass is just going to put barriers up to any amount of freedom, any amount of commerce and it won't actually help anybody in the way that they think it will."
Glock 17 for sale on a black market site on the deep web.
Due to the intricate nature of onion routing, it isn't easy to work out how many people are using Tor. But if the numbers on the Tor project website are anything to go by, daily user numbers have steadily doubled to around 400,000 over the past year or so.
But will authorities invading people's online privacy really make people wanna hide from that, or will they just shut up and eat the government's shit? “I think they already are [hiding]. I think at the same time it's going to spur a tonne of innovation to methods and technical realities that are nearly impossible to censor or control. There's already the 'darknet' or the 'hidden web', all that is sort of out there and it's completely peer-to-peer. For the most part, there's been no real, decentralised, heavily-encrypted network that has become super-popular. [But] in ten years or so, when governments catch up to the new reality they created, they will probably be horrified because there is no central point of control."
A site aimed to attract whistleblowers looking to share sensitive information.
But once the governments do get to grips with it, aren't we just in for another game of cat and mouse? “Yeah. I mean, it usually is," Andrew explained, "I understand some of the government's concerns, having spoke to people both in the US and in the EU. Their concerns are that an increasingly large percent of their gross domestic product is becoming tied to the internet, so looking at it in their minds, they cannot have this fairly anarchistic environment without some sort of control over it. The attitude is 'something must be done', whether it's valid or not is sort of irrelevant.”
It's comforting to think that with all the curveballs governments are throwing at our internet, there are people out there innovating new ways to bat them straight back out the park. It might jar your freedom-fighting sensibilities that Tor was started by the military, but then so was a lot of stuff that turned out pretty great. For example, the internet itself. Oh shit, hang on…
Follow Josh on Twitter @joshuahaddow