The dark web is the part of the internet that lies beyond the “www” at the beginning of the URL. It can only be accessed via browsing tools such as Tor. Using Tor allows users to browse the internet with almost entire anonymity.
The US wanted to move their communications with agents who operated around the world, online. However, as they would be sharing life and death information, they needed a way to ensure absolute privacy. Thus, they started work on developing a way to encrypt data using a network of computers.
This method is known as Onion Routing as it bounces connections through relays located all over the globe. At the moment there are approximately 6000 computers acting as relays routing traffic for Tor.
The client computer sends the data and it is bounced into the guard relay then to the middle relays then the exit relay. The guard is simply a normal middle relay that has good “time known” (has been around for long enough) and good “weighted fractional uptime” (they work majority of the time) and good enough bandwidth to be seen as above a certain quality. Thus data starts its journey from a trusted guard relay so that in case it is routed later through a weak relay that is vulnerable to attacks it is guaranteed at least some cover.
An exit relay is different from both of these as, to anyone checking, their IP address will seem like the source of the data being sent. They are the final gateway before the data arrives. This means anyone running an exit relay may potentially partially to blame in the eyes of the law. However, although they may receive complaints or deal with more complicated situations, no one has ever been sued or prosecuted to date for running a Tor relay and many view it as legal no matter what data is being sent.
Once the details or how Tor would work were finalised, they also realised that they would have to release their encryption method to the public in order to further secure their anonymity. They would need as many computers as possible acting as relays and it might be too clear that it was governmental information if that was the only type being bounced around the globe.
They argue now that they released it so that all people would have a way to protect themselves but there is still arguments about their reasoning today. Executive director Andrew Lewman told the Guardian,
“We were increasingly concerned about all these websites - in the 2000/01 dotcom bubble, everyone was offering free services, and by free they meant 'we take all your information and sell it as many times as possible'”.
By 2011, Tor had had around 36 million people use their network.
In December 2014, researcher Dr Gareth Owen studied traffic using Tor’s encryption methods and found that 80% of the traffic is accessing or hosting child abuse content. He found that “while sites with pedophile material represent just 2% of the estimated 45,000 hidden services websites online at any one time, they account for 83% of visits to these sites once automated “botnet” traffic is removed from calculations”.
However, the network was also pivotal in allowing users in Iran and Egypt to use the internet while their countries banned it. It has also been a vital tool for whistle-blowers and even allowed Edward Snowden to release his information. Many people still support Tor unwaveringly as a way for the average person to access the internet with the simple ability of protecting their information. Now the numbers of users who simply download Tor to browse the world wide web normally is rising rapidly. It’s still the best way to ensure anonymity.
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