Because the internet is possibly one of the greatest inventions in human history, it is also an ideal medium for discussing our rights as citizens. As a resource, it has become a phenomenal learning and communication tool— but it has also become a virtual playground for cybercrime, data theft, and government surveillance. Under the auspices of transparency and safety, we take all sorts of precautionary measures to protect ourselves and our private information from the prying eyes of malicious actors.
But with this protection comes a certain degree of visibility, mostly because we are constantly being asked to enter a password, provide a username, or in some way identify who we are. And while this doesn’t pose much of a problem for most people, who don’t spend time considering the state of their digital rights, the truth is companies are now targeting us for their own gain, dropping cookies on our browsing history, and curating all sorts of advertisements and content to grab our attention—and our money. So, with the internet’s promise of a clean, well-lit place comes chronic commercial targeting and the realization that our privacy is in shreds.
Tor As A Symbol
If you doubt this assertion, all you need to do is look at the history and evolution of the dark web, a corner of cyberspace that can only accessed through Tor. For those who don’t know, Tor provides an overlay network to the existing internet, or “clearnet,” giving global online traffic a way to remain anonymous and undetectable. As a browser, Tor protects users by separating identification and routing, randomly bouncing communications from hub to hub. Because it works at the application level, Tor has a level of independence that sets it apart from most other anonymity networks. It layers the encryption, like an onion, and each node peels off a layer of code as it passes through the network—which is why it’s often referred to as the “onion browser.” Tor makes it almost impossible to trace a person’s internet activity—thus providing increased privacy and confidentiality—and, as a result, has essentially created a dark corner of cyberspace where all purposes and intentions can be realized. In fact, many people now say Tor symbolizes the last bastion of privacy in the digital sphere.
Paired with a virtual private network (VPN), Tor provides genuine freedom for the user whose data is encrypted and cannot be observed by an external observer—not something found on the regular internet. So if a user’s movement is tracked, the only visible transmission will be going into or coming out of Tor node, nothing more. Domains in the dark web are really just a string of random characters followed by “.onion,” and they cannot be indexed through regular search engines like Google or Bing. They can only be accessed through Tor. And as a result of these unique conditions, Tor caters to all kinds of people, from perverts and thieves to hacktivists and privacy-minded citizens. Whether we like it or not, that is the way of freedom—people tend to do different things with it.
Thanks to the illicit and criminal exploits of dark web celebrities like the Silk Road, Tor has developed quite a sinister reputation. But like most dark things, there’s more to the story than just the faceless men in hoodies and pornography-loving criminals we tend to imagine. Like the flower, Lily of the Valley, which grows well in deep shade, the darknet offers plenty of other endeavors, many of which have nothing to do with crime and everything to do with the absence of censorship and surveillance. For those individuals and businesses who live or work in oppressive countries like China, such as journalists, human rights activists, and refugees, where access to information can mean death, this freedom is no small prize. And Tor is the only platform that provides it.
Tor’s Dark History
Like all juicy, secretive things, the core principle of onion routing was essentially developed by the two most powerful U.S. entities—the military and the government. First created in the mid-1990s by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Tor was designed to protect online U.S. intelligence communications. In 1997, it was further developed by a sector of the Department of Defense known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) whose mission has always been to help the U.S. stay on top of its technological game. And these guys are not messing around.
DARPA is an independent research and development facility located in Arlington, Virginia with numerous well-funded and mind-blowing projects in the realm of computer networking, including military robots, brain implants, interstellar travel, underwater drones, “hack-proof” networks, and even using the electromagnetic spectrum to “invisibly” cloak fighter jets. They collaborate with academics, industry experts, and government agencies to design and implement some of the most cutting-edge technologies in the world, often beyond what is universally sanctioned by the military itself. They have worked tirelessly since 1958 to offer the nation the most effective way to control everything from outer space to the minutiae of a citizen’s personal life. And these days, DARPA is busy developing a darknet search engine that will allow authorities to uncover patterns and relationships in online data, thus shining a surveillance light on what was once a hidden place.
But despite the intelligence of the government, never underestimate the abilities of motivated citizens. When two enterprising computer scientists established the Tor Project in 2002, they released a version to the public just a year later at the USENIX symposium. In 2004, the code was then released under a free license, and an international non-profit maven in San Francisco called the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) kept the project funded and upwardly mobile. In the early years, they were Tor’s main financial supporter; however, the U.S. government has never abandoned its brainchild, and now provides a great deal of funding for one shining reason—it wants to maintain influence and control over Tor and the people who use it. This underground network gives them access to an untapped realm of whistleblowers, information, and criminals. Even more nefarious is their deep-seated desire to exploit the weaknesses of Tor and use them for counterintelligence and increased surveillance on just about everything, including the populace. Generally speaking, if something is powerful, the NSA wants a piece of it.
Tor’s New Identity
So, what exactly is Tor today? It is an underground network used by people around the world to accomplish various goals. According to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, “Tor’s importance cannot be overstated.” It provides one of the few remaining ways left for citizens and privacy-minded users to regain a sense of autonomy and freedom in a world where truth, accountability, and justice have become nothing more than catch phrases. But it’s not all sunny in paradise. In 2007, a Swedish Tor expert confirmed he had, in fact, harvested documents, email contents, and authentication codes by operating a volunteer “exit” node which allowed him to exploit the information. And Assange, among others, also knew this and used the weakness to process over one million documents from 13 different countries, all through a server being used as a node for the Tor network. And in that way, WikiLeaks—and the greater counterculture of radicals, activists, and revolutionaries—exposed the government at their own game, essentially spying and reporting on those who believed themselves solely capable of such things. And to this day, the government’s outrage is still so strong, attorney general Jeff Sessions was quoted as saying Assange’s arrest is still a “priority” for the U.S. government who has refused to withdraw his arrest warrant in February 2018.
Of course, any time the government wants to justify its decisions without explanation to the public, it cites “national security” as a motivating factor, thus playing on our fear as a way to bolster their own. In some cases, they might be right, but in many other cases, they are not. Granted, taking down a darknet child pornography site certainly falls under this category, but trying to classify Tor exploits and other potentially significant information often extends past the boundaries of their privilege. In fact, the government has become so overzealous in waving their classification wand, Congress passed the Reducing Over-Classification Act in 2010, which put their decisions under a bit of a microscope. And it forced them to share accurate and actionable information with the average-joe, which is not something they typically enjoy. That’s where the real problem lies, because the government can’t demonize Tor (and all sorts of other things) if citizens have enough information to think for themselves. And in this way, the darknet is just another symbol of power soon to be siphoned away from the public.
Remember Your Digital Rights
So regardless of how Tor is perceived, it is both a compelling platform and a symbol of the new fight for freedom. With its offer of anonymity, the user is able to regain control of their own privacy and the benefit it offers. And therein lies the most exciting part of the dark web—its potential. But there’s no doubt this fact is also increasingly appealing to the government—and those who seek to regulate the movements and access of the nation—because this piece of cyberspace represents the power, resilience, and intelligence of the citizen. Yes, it also represents the darker side of humanity and our need to create mayhem. It may not be regulated—but at least it’s ours.