In recent years, the Darknet has entered the public consciousness as a kind of vast and unknown universe lurking ominously beneath the clearnet (the regular internet that we all know, perhaps a bit too well, and love, perhaps a bit too much). While it’s become infamous as a space rife with child pornography, and the illicit trade of weapons and drugs, the Darknet is also the platform used by WikiLeaks for the organisation’s data disclosures, as well as by activists across the globe to subvert internet censorship and coordinate revolutionary movements, most notably perhaps, playing an instrumental role in orchestrating 2011’s Arab Spring.
So, what exactly is it, and how has it become such an incredible tool for retaining internet anonymity?
Ironically, The Onion Router (TOR) project was initially developed by Naval researchers for the US Department of Defence (DOD), with the aim of creating a network for military personnel to communicate via civilian internet with complete anonymity. This method – called onion routing – sends packets of information randomly between users (nodes) on the network until it reaches its destination unencrypted. Each time the packet is routed through a node, a layer of encryption is “peeled back”, hence the term onion.
In 2006, the Tor project was launched as a non-profit entity, freely accessible to the general public, the rationale being that more nodes would create a more secure network, making it virtually impossible to trace data as it travels randomly between nodes across the globe.
Since then, the network has grown exponentially, boasting an average of around 100,000 new downloads per day in 2017. And although Tor has become synonymous with enabling illicit and dangerous activities, the software plays a far simpler, and more positive role, in regions subjected to state censorship. In the years prior to the Arab Spring, Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum conducted several Tor training camps in the Middle East, educating civilians on how to use the software to circumvent the oppressive state surveillance of internet activity throughout the region. Subsequently, Tor became an indispensable tool for civilians to coordinate and orchestrate a revolution by providing a gateway to access social media without risk of severe punishment. Currently, in heavily censored states ranging from Iran to China, Tor is being utilised by activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens in order to subvert and actively oppose the stranglehold of authoritarian regimes.
While it must be acknowledged that criminal entities have co-opted corners of the Dark Web for unconscionable purposes, this cannot be seen as grounds for dismantling what is currently one of the best tools available to the public for retaining personal freedom in an era of ever-encroaching mass surveillance.
Tor browser is available for download here.