The average computer user with an Internet connection has access to an amazing wealth of information. But there's also an entire world that's invisible to your standard Web browser. These parts of the Internet are known as the Deep Web. The tools to get to there are just a few clicks away, and more and more people who want to browse the Web anonymously are signing on.
Fans of the series House of Cards might recall the Deep Web being worked into the plot of latest season. The character Lucas, a newspaper editor who was trying find a hacker, gets a little crash course from one of his reporters:
"Ninety-six percent of the Internet isn't accessible through standard search engines. Most of it's useless but it's where you go to find anything and everything: child porn, Bitcoin laundry, narcotics, hackers for hire ..."
Wired reporter Kim Zetter tells NPR's Arun Rath that the show kind of got it right, but that there should be a distinction between what's called the Deep Web and what are known as Darknet sites. "The Deep Web is anything not accessible through the commercial search engines," Zetter says.
Then, there's the Darknet, a specific part of that hidden Web where you can operate in total anonymity. Without being tracked, people can access websites that sell drugs, weapons and they can even hire assassins. One such black-market site, Silk Road, got attention last fall after a crackdown by the FBI.
Zeeter says the Darknet has another purpose that doesn't usually make the news: It helps political dissidents who want to evade government censors.
Accessing The Hidden Internet
Tor is the main browser people use to access the part of the Web where anonymity reigns. "Tor" is an acronym for The Onion Router; the onion refers to the layers you go through to disguise your identity.
It's free and anyone can download it. It's a simple site that looks like a Web browser, but if you take the right steps, it's quite different. When you connect to a site through Tor, your computer goes through a series of other computers and bounces around anonymously until it reaches a destination.
"No one will be able to see you're the one visiting those websites, and the websites will not be able to see you either," says Runa Sandvik, a privacy and security researcher. "They will only be able to see that you're using Tor to do something."
Usually when you visit a website, your Internet service provider can see that you are visiting that site. Sandvik, a former contractor with the Tor Project, says if you use Tor, the location that you appear to be in will change.
"You can be in D.C. and send your traffic through Germany, Sweden and Russia, for example," she says. "And the website that you're visiting will see that someone in Russia is visiting, not you in D.C."
Like the Internet itself, Tor was created by the government. Developed at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, its initial purpose was to protect the communications of the U.S. military, Sandvik says.
"But the challenge here is that if you have this anonymity system and [all] traffic going into the system is the U.S. Navy and everything popping out is the U.S. Navy, then you're not that anonymous," she says. "So by opening up this system to everyone, different groups of people can hide in a big crowd of anonymous Tor users."
Sandvik says because of how Tor was developed, emphasizing privacy by design, there is no way to figure out who's using Tor or if those users are using it for illicit activities.
|Screen shot of TOR Project web site.|
Despite the reputation Silk Road brought to the Deep Web, Sandvik says there's a lot more going on besides criminal activity. "There's human rights activists, journalists, military, law enforcement [and] normal people," she says. "It just really depends on what you want to do."
Tor is a valuable tool for Chinese dissidents who can't access sites like Twitter. And it became a valuable tool during the Arab Spring. "We saw that the numbers were skyrocketing," Sandvik says. "For example in Iran, Tor usage went from 7,000 users in 2010 to 40,000 users two years later."
In Syria, the number of Tor users grew from 600 to 15,000 in just two years, she says. Closer to home, Tor's executive director is working with victims of domestic abuse, who need to communicate without being tracked by their abusers.
Tor use jumped again in the last year, since the revelation of the National Security Agency's surveillance program. Sandvik estimates there are close to a million daily users worldwide. With Americans increasingly concerned about being monitored online by corporations, or their government, that number is certain to grow.
The anonymous Web surfing system Tor is run by volunteers — and sometimes they get caught between the police and criminal suspects. When the FBI tried to force Apple to unlock an iPhone last month, it was a battle of titans. There were high-powered lawyers and dueling public relations strategies. But when police encounter a privacy technology run by volunteers, things can be a little different.
|David Robinson with his TOR Exit Relay in closet.|
"They were there because I run a Tor exit relay," he says. Tor (which stands for The Onion Router) is a system that allows people to surf the Internet anonymously. It's sometimes referred to as the "dark Web," and it relies on Internet connections provided by volunteers like Robinson.
"Traffic passes through my computers and I don't know what it is," he says. While Tor is useful for dissidents to evade government surveillance and censorship, it can also be used for less noble purposes. "It's much like the post office or the telephone company. Anybody can use it. Bad guys can also use it."
In this case, police said a child pornography image had been traced to Robinson's home Internet address, and that was enough for them to get a warrant. But Robinson, who's also a prominent privacy activist in Seattle, doesn't think that justifies the early morning search.
"What was upsetting about it was that they should have known," he says. Tor traffic is encrypted. Volunteers can't see its contents, and it doesn't leave a trace after it passes through an exit relay. He says the police seemed to imply that he shared responsibility for what came through his connection. At one point, a detective offered to show him the image, but Robinson refused.
"I said, 'There's no reason for you to be coming in here and accusing me of having child pornography,' " Robinson says.
The Deep Web is a part of the Internet not accessible by standard Web browsers and search engines. Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb says the department understands how Tor relays work, and they knew Robinson was a Tor host.
"Knowing that, moving in, it doesn't automatically preclude the idea that the people running Tor are not also involved in child porn," Whitcomb says. "It does offer a plausible alibi, but it's still something that we need to check out."
Whitcomb also says Seattle police were "artful" in the way they did the search. Instead of impounding all of Robinson's computers, which the warrant would have allowed, they offered to search them on the premises as long as he consented to turning over his passwords. He did, and they let him keep his machines after they scanned them.
Tor itself is completely legal, and Seattle police say they have no objection to people hosting relays. But more broadly speaking, Tor can be frustrating for law enforcement agencies, especially those pursuing child pornography, Internet fraud and black markets.
"Tor certainly has the ability, if used by somebody who truly understands what it's capable of, of thwarting police investigations," says Jeff Fischbach, a forensic technologist with extensive experience working on criminal cases involving technology and encryption.
|Democrat senators Charles Schumer and Joe Manchin.|
An added wrinkle in Robinson's case is the fact that he hosts the Tor exit relay from his home. Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher worked on an important case involving police access to cellphones. He says Tor volunteers may find themselves in a tough spot, because there's still a lot of grey area when it comes to shielding technology from the police. "Testing the legal boundaries of the police authority in this context could be expensive, difficult, cumbersome and perhaps treacherous," Fisher says.
Robinson admits it might be safer, legally, to host the Tor relay on rented space from a commercial Internet service to avoid mingling his personal traffic with Tor, but he says he shouldn't have to.
"Why should I be spending extra money?" he asks. "There need to be more Tor exit nodes, more Tor nodes generally, and you don't need to be discouraging people from doing it by intimidating them with bogus criminal complaints," he says.
Given his early morning wake-up call last week and the fact that he may now have to get rid of his computers because he can't be sure what the police did to them while he was being questioned outside his apartment, Robinson says he may have to reassess whether it's practical for him to stand on that principle.
The website Silk Road allows users to anonymously buy illegal drugs. U.S. lawmakers are seeking a crackdown against the site. The e-commerce website Silk Road is being called the Amazon.com of illegal drugs.
The goods it sells include cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and marijuana. The products are delivered through regular mail and shipping services to a buyer's front door. The site is not legal, and it is hard to find. "The only way that it possibly exists is the fact that the people on it think that they are completely anonymous," Gawker staff writer Adrian Chen tells NPR's Rachel Martin.
Silk Road buyers and sellers use TOR, a system that allows its users to use the Internet anonymously, to log on to the site and only conduct transactions in the digital currency bitcoin, which is also untraceable.
TOR routes Internet traffic through a volunteer network of servers used to conceal a user's location. "It kind of is a shell game that mixes up the traffic so that it's untraceable directly back to your computer," Chen says.
The anonymity doesn't stop there. The only way to make a purchase on Silk Road is to use bitcoins. "Its completely peer to peer," Chen says. "There are no banks acting as middlemen. A transaction goes right from buyer to seller just like a cash transaction in the real world."
Although there are not too many uses for bitcoins in the real world, the virtual currency is making the purchase of illegal drugs as easy as buying shoes from Zappos.com or books from Amazon.com.
|TOR obviously is being used by terrorists including the Islamic State.|
Democratic Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia want U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Drug Enforcement Administration to launch a full investigation into Silk Road and the use of bitcoin.
"The only method of payment for these illegal purchases is an untraceable peer-to-peer currency known as bitcoins," the senators wrote in a letter to Holder. "After purchasing bitcoins through an exchange, a user can create an account on Silk Road and start purchasing illegal drugs from individuals around the world and have them delivered to their homes within days. "We urge you to take immediate action and shut down the Silk Road network."
Chen is not sure it will be that easy. "It's unclear if they will be able to shut it down," he says. "It's going to be a real test of TOR to see if they can actually preserve anonymity." Still, Chen says, Silk Road does have an Achilles' heel. "You need a physical address to deliver the stuff," he says.