Tor is an internet browsing service which encrypts user data and allows anonymous browsing – which traditional internet infrastructure does not. This technology, since its introduction, has had a variety of positive and negative influences on the internet, most notably the rise of the dark net through providing a safe haven for illegal criminal activity, and for safe communication in countries faced with issues of censorship and restriction.
A New Digital Era
It’s the mid to late 1990’s – the internet, still a relatively new concept, is exploding in popularity in America and around the world. It’s main pull is instant communication with anyone else in the world that has a connection – through email, chat rooms, and a host of other services. The Dot Com bubble is at its peak, with companies desperate to invest in any kind of service holding a .com domain, regardless of traditional market evaluation risk. Yahoo, launched in early 1996, offered an IPO that traded up 152 percent on its first day. The internet was a new information utopia, and rightfully seemed to be the future of almost everything. However, there was a bit of a caveat amongst all of this expansion – the internet was designed to connect people, but without much any thought to anonymity. To the majority of the population, this was of no bother. The online population continued to grow into the year 2000, reaching almost 100 million users that year in an exponential growth pattern.
A .com ad, written in the sky.
There was, however, one large entity concerned that the internet was going to be the future of communication – the United States Government.
A New Digital Problem
Contracted computer scientists at the Navy Research Labs began experimenting with methods of hiding internet activity, with the intention of creating a way of accessing the internet in an untraceable manner. This method proved successful, and was dubbed ‘onion routing’ – named after the layers of encryption encapsulating the web packets sent between servers on this network, which in effect acted like layers of an onion.This new system of sending and receiving untraceable information could not work in the current networked infrastructure of the internet – it required a new network, laid on top of the existing one. This new network, called an overlay network, enabled users to send and receive this anonymous data.
Because this system used an entirely new way of routing information, it required a special client – dubbed The Onion Router, or Tor. Of course, this overlay network could be used to access traditional sites, but it could also be used to create a new network of hidden sites, only accessible by those with the Tor client (identified by their .onion domain names). This, however, posed a unique problem to those that wanted to use it most.
Robert Dingledine, co-founder of the Tor Network, verbalized this issue at a tech conference in 2004:
“The United States government can’t simply run an anonymity system for everybody and then use it themselves only. Because then every time a connection came from it people would say, ‘Oh, it’s another CIA agent.’ If those are the only people using the network.”
This was a problem with Tor more than it was with onion routing. Let’s say a terrorist cell had set up an online forum to communicate, under the guise of being a discussion board for gardening. If a government agent was to connect to this site using Tor in an attempt to infiltrate this cell, their IP and other identifying information would be entirely and utterly untraceable. The only information that the terrorists could uncover about the connection was that it had used Tor; therefore, if the only people that had access to Tor was the government, suddenly the anonymous system was no longer anonymous. This posed an interesting problem for the US Government, as there didn’t seem to be a way to circumvent this issue without going back to using traditional internet networks. There was, however, a method that would allow government agents to hide who was using the service to communicate:
Make it open source, and available to everyone.
If Tor became flooded with users wanting anonymity, then government agents seeking discreet communication would be entirely lost in the wash, and the service would become truly anonymous. There would be no way to tell between a student and a CIA agent, and Tor could serve its purpose. And thus, the dark web was born.
The Underside of the Web
The Dark Web is the part of the internet that exists on darknets, or overlay networks that still work like traditional internet services but require special software or authorization to access. The Dark web, however, is not to be confused with the much larger Deep Web – which is simply all of the internet data that is not indexed by search engines. That leaves the Surface Web, which is the data that’s actually searchable on Google and other search engines, and is roughly 400-550 times smaller than the Deep Web. But how can that be so?
Graphic demonstrating the different areas of the web.
It has to do with the way that search engines index websites – most information on the net is stored in databases, backend server storage that requires querying to pull out their data. These queries need to be asked in a ‘one at a time’ fashion, making it difficult and tedious for search engines to use them on the large enough scale to help with indexing the web. For instance, unlisted videos on YouTube are part of the Deep Web – they aren’t accessible from Google, or even through YouTube’s search, unless you have a direct URL.
The ‘Dark’ Web
The Dark Web, like the Surface web, again makes up a small percentage of the total data on the internet – estimated at roughly one half of one percent. This one half of one percent, however, contains almost all of the illegal content on the web – due to its anonymity. The concept of being completely anonymous online attracts a wide variety of people, some of which legitimately have something to hide. Because anyone using the dark web is untraceable (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to connect), it has become a safe haven for child porn, drug trafficking, and other extremely illicit activity. These sites, not visible in the surface web, are known as hidden services. Tor, as the main overlay network provider, harbors such hidden services that supposedly offer hitman services, botnets, and large volumes of illegal drugs. One such site was Silk Road, a drug trafficking and exchange network that was taken down in October 2013. The site was estimated to have generated over $1.2 Billion in revenue since going live in 2011, with over 60,000 people visiting the site every day . User were able to pay for illegal drugs using cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin while the site was live, which prevented payment information linking back to them and protected their anonymity.
The banner image of the Silk Road marketplace.
Cut One Head Off…
However, a few weeks after law enforcement agencies pulled down Silk Road, Silk Road 2.0 launched – rocketing back up to over 150,000 active users, and generating $8 million a month in revenue. Silk Road 2.0 was seized in late 2014 – and was relaunched mere hours later as Silk Road 3 Reloaded. A Hydra of anonymous illegal exchange, one can’t help but wonder that sites like Silk Road are acceptable collateral damage that US government agencies pay to maintain channels of hidden communication. And pay they do, since the largest source of funding for Tor since it’s launch has been an affiliate of the CIA – contributing over $6.1 million dollars to the client since 2007.
The silk road homepage, after being seized by Law Enforcement.
Not all Tor use is nefarious, however – one such notable example is use by citizens in Syria and Iran . After the beginning of the Syrian Civil war in 2011, the Syrian Telecommunications Agency, controlled by the government and with a monopoly on Syrian internet infrastructure, began monitoring and reporting citizens internet traffic to the government. In addition, a pro-government hacker group called the Syrian Electronic Army ‘actively targets human rights activists and political oppositions’. On top of this, the government filters content and restricts access to certain domains, such as access to VPN services. Similar censorship systems exist in Iran, with over 886 unique domains blocked, mostly containing political or news related content . In addition, ‘the breadth and scale of censorship also suggests a high level of surveillance, since knowing what to block requires prior knowledge of what people are accessing (or could be accessing)’ . In response to this, citizens of these countries have been turning to Tor. Using Tor not only allows access back to those sites, it protects those users who would otherwise fear of being identified by government or other third party groups for looking at or sharing censored content. This means Tor has more or less assumed the role of a platform, through which citizens are able to have the freedom of expression their governments have denied them.
The Tor Ecosystem
Although there are areas of the net that without Tor would be inaccessible, Tor itself does not exist in a bubble. We can break its main user base down into two very simple groups – those with good intentions, and those with bad intentions. Users with ‘good’ intentions in this case might represent citizens of Syria or Iran, who might wish to access censored or otherwise restricted political content in their region. Users with ‘bad’ intentions might be criminals wishing to access illegal content or participate in illegal activity online, without being able to be traced. Tor equally allows both of these groups to accomplish their goals, by allowing them to bypass the restrictions and tracking of traditional internet infrastructure. Tor also allows these users to access websites on the surface web anonymously, as well as the overlay network only Dark Web – which itself is heavily monitored by international law enforcement agencies. Tor receives operational funding both through an affiliate of the US government and from independent sponsors, allowing it to continue to operate its routing service.
In conclusion, building and funding Tor, the primary service for using the web anonymously, has wide-reaching social and political ramifications. In the dark corners of the web, hidden away beneath overlay networks, Tor is the backbone of large illegal marketplaces, selling all kinds of products and services only available through the guise of anonymity. In oppressed nations like Iran and Syria, Tor allows its’ users a way of subverting government censorship, and to maintain their right to freedom of expression online. Although being released to the public as only a means of ensuring security, the United States government continues to channel funds into Tor, supporting its continued development. And, although neither all positive or all negative, the internet has been forever changed since its release.
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