On the back of scandals such as those that engulfed the NSA and Cambridge Analytica, online privacy and data protection have become major political concerns. Many of us worry that private companies and governments know more about us than our closest friends and relatives.
One alternative is to switch to the darknet, which offers anonymity and protection from those who keep track of what people do online. Yet it is controversial, to say the least. The darknet has been associated with everything from drug and weapons dealers to child porn, hitmen and identity thieves. Even the name suggests a dark, sinister space. Yet when you actually investigate this encrypted network, the reality is a bit more complicated. And it’s time to call the darknet’s sleazy reputation into question.
The darknet is a worldwide decentralised network of hundreds of computers, whose owners configure them and contribute internet bandwidth to create a series of routing points or nodes. These nodes feature a form of layered encryption, that often gets compared to an onion – hence the collective name The Onion Routing network, or Tor for short.
Onion routing was originally developed in the 1990s by the US Naval Research Laboratory to protect US intelligence communications online. Free Tor software was first made publicly available in 2002, and the not-for-profit Tor project was set up in 2006 to maintain the system. It has received funding over the years from governments, NGOs, foundations and companies, as well as thousands of personal donations.
Since April, between 2m to 2.5m people use Tor worldwide every day. The number fluctuates greatly over time; there was a short-term peak in the fourth quarter of 2013, for instance. This was perhaps related to the emerging popularity of so-called cryptomarkets like Silk Road, when global traffic reached almost 6m. In the UK at that time, the user base rose to 157,000 – now it’s more like 70,000.
The darknet goes dark
The launch of Silk Road in 2011 has much to do with the controversy around the darknet. The first of its kind, Silk Road was a market space for everything from firearms to illegal drugs. By the time it was busted by the FBI in October 2013, the media was essentially equating it with the entire darknet. Subsequent reports about drug crime, child porn and hitman services only strengthened the association.
Few would disagree today that the darknet attracts a lot of criminal activity, so what’s the case for the defence? For one thing, the network offers safe space to many activities that require anonymity. Socially sensitive communications are a good example – such as forums for people who have survived rape or child abuse. Journalists use Tor to interact more safely with whistleblowers, while it enables activists in repressive regimes to communicate politically sensitive information – the likes of Human Rights Watch actually encourage this.
When my colleague at the University of Aberdeen, Hanifi Baris, was recently arrested by the Turkish authorities for sharing anti-Erdoğan information on Facebook and Twitter, it underlined the importance of the darknet as an outlet for protest. There was a rather telling sharp peak in Tor users in Turkey during the last presidential elections in June.
When it comes to illicit drugs, darknet services can be a safer option for people who would take drugs anyway. Buyers avoid the risk of physical violence that comes with scoring on the street. Buyer reviews put pressure on darknet dealers to sell drugs of decent quality – albeit some reviewers will have more expertise than others and experiences are always going to be somewhat subjective.
At any rate, the darknet has amassed a collectively built database of knowledge and shared experiences about drug consumption in cryptomarkets that can offer guidance and support for anyone who wants to use them. Given that drugs always vary in strength and purity depending on the seller and the batch, this information can be incredibly important – and often much more helpful than a generic forum or drug info website.
As for some of the other illegal activities on the darknet, child pornography is banned in most cryptomarkets, for example, while hitman services have usually turned out to be scams. Additionally, the darknet does not turn people into drug addicts, arms dealers, assassins or paedophiles. The decision to engage in such activities usually happens outwith that space.
The conventional internet is not merely a platform for us to communicate, game, shop, download and so on. These activities all feed valuable data to governments and companies.
Most of us are surrounded by personal devices that are almost always online, and we’ve made ourselves open to massive marketisation, exploitation, monitoring, control and repression. It’s the hefty price we pay for internet freedom – and new legal frameworks like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will not significantly change this.
The darknet is hardly a panacea in this regard, but it does allow people to reclaim privacy and protect their identities online. Admittedly there are limits to this: Tor enables users to hide their geographical location, but any data you provide once you are inside a website is accessible to whoever is running it, plus any organisations they may collaborate with. Log in to gmail from Tor and your emails are not private (try ProtonMail or Snapchat instead). Every Twitter search via Tor is logged like it is for any user – just like it is for Amazon and so on.
Another major problem is the speed of Tor, which depends on the number of nodes on the available bandwidth. Everything is slowed down by the secure encryption and user anonymity built into the structure. Although Tor has gained markedly in speed and security since its inception, it is still slower than the conventional internet.
This compromise between speed and exposure/protection will probably continue for the foreseeable future. If you want to help, however, you might consider running a relay. Everyone is invited to collaborate – here’s a guide explaining what to do. Instead of shunning the darknet as a badland for bad people, it’s time more of us saw its potential as a force for good.