The internet can be divided into three main parts – the surface web, the deep web and the dark web. The surface web makes up about 0.03% of the internet, and includes anything immediately accessible by the public through search engines like Google or Bing. The deep web makes up the other 99.7% of the internet and contains encrypted sites that don’t immediately show up through searches. This includes anything with a log-in or a paywall, including personal email or social media accounts, databases or dropbox. The dark web is a small, hidden part of the deep web that requires special software to access.
Joslenne Peña is a visiting assistant professor at Macalester who specializes in human-computer interaction.
“All of our other browsers– Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer– track us by location. That’s how they send us content that they advertise or sponsor. But, there are certain anonymized, private encrypted browsers that allow access to the darknet,” Peña said.
According to Peña, The Onion Router, or Tor, is the most common way to access the darknet. “Onion routing” allows anonymous browsing and communication by bouncing a searcher’s internet traffic through three “layers”, or random servers in the Tor network. This way, authorities monitoring internet traffic cannot track the location of Tor users.
Tor was originally created by the U.S. Navy in the 1990s to allow secure communications between officers, so that hostile forces could not determine users’ identities and location even if they were monitoring internet traffic. In 2002, Tor’s creators released the code under a free and open software license. Now, the organization is a registered non-profit that supports free speech, transparency and online civil liberties.
Isabela Bagueros is the executive director of the Tor Project. Bagueros emphasized the power of Tor in allowing free dialogue and access to information.
“Our mission is to advance human rights by providing free and open technology for people to have privacy and anonymity on the internet,” Bagueros said. “People use Tor to protect themselves because their rights are being violated.”
Activists, dissidents and whistleblowers have been known to find protection from censorship and arrest through Tor.
“There are technical examples like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, as well as campesinos and Indigenous communities who document violations and need a secure method of communication with lawyers. Tor is currently being used in Russia and the Ukraine, where there is a lot of surveillance and censorship happening,” Bagueros said. “Sometimes people just use it to access the normal internet when their country has a firewall.”
Facebook, secure email addresses, bitcoin wallets, VPN providers, radios, and news outlets including ProPublica, BBC and Sci-Hub are all available through the Tor network.
The dark web is the subject of much controversy and curiosity. Many associate this part of the web with illicit activities and nefarious forums. Apurv Singh Gautam is a threat researcher at Cyble, a cyber threat intelligence company. Gautam said that darknet ecommerce plays a significant role in driving the market for stolen data.
“[Darknet sites] contain everything related to drugs, weapons, databases, research materials, etc… Threat actors sell databases, hacking services, malware, etc.” Gautam said.
With the rise of cryptocurrencies (which allow anonymous, difficult-to-trace transactions), darknet markets have garnered greater attention.
In 2013, the FBI investigated and shut down The Silk Road, an online market that hosted laundering activities and illegal drug sales using Bitcoin. Its creator, Ross William Ulbricht, is now serving a lifetime sentence in prison. With Interpol, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies successfully arresting online criminals, some users may question how much privacy and anonymity the Tor browser truly offers.
“I’m not saying Tor is perfect, because there is no technology that is… but we haven’t yet found an attack, or even evidence of someone exploiting a vulnerability in our technology to deanonymize people,” Bagueros said. “We have seen successful stories [of arrests] made through common police work, like watching people’s behavior or getting [guilty parties] to download a link or file.”
Bagueros recognized that criminal activity may occur through Tor browsers, but noted that the darknet hosts only a small portion of online illegal activity. She condemned the use of anonymous browsing for criminal activities, but admitted that Tor could do little to reveal criminals’ identities.
“If you add a feature where you can identify people, then you create a backdoor, a vulnerability. [Authorities or malicious actors] could exploit this weakness and use it against people who actually need the protection. If I build this system to know who users are, I would be putting millions of Tor users who need this protection into a vulnerable place,” Bagueros said.
Bagueros condemned the growing prevalence of targeted ads, fake news and the commercialization of data.
“It’s important for people to ask why such a tool is necessary. Why is the protection of your data not just part of the infrastructure of the internet? I wish we didn’t have to build Tor and the whole internet was safe for everybody, but that’s not the case,” Baguaros said.
Bagueros also urged people to reconsider the term “darknet” for describing anonymous browsers and Tor’s services.
“People assume that all [Tor] sites are engaged in illegal activity… The reality is that a lot of these onion sites are normal servers,” Bagueros said. “People should not condemn anonymity – In a democracy, voting is anonymous for a reason. Anonymity gives you the power to express what you are thinking and what you want without retaliation.”