Onion. You’ll read a lot about it.
Deep Web: Everything on the internet that is not indexed by search engines.
Dark Web: A part of the Deep Web that, well, is dark. They are networks that require special software and authorisation in order to access, and the websites here are usually for illegal activities.
The first thing that comes to my mind when I talk about the Deep Web is Tor, that stands for “The Onion Router”. Tor is associated with the Dark Web mainly because of of user anonymity. Tor is actually a piece of software - a web browser - that allows for connecting to the onion network.
Which brings me to the principle technique: onion routing. Onion routing was essentially developed to encrypt US Intelligence communication back in the mid-1990s. It was created at the US Naval Research Laboratory and later improved by the Defence Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Today though, it is open source and can be used via the Tor browser.
So how on earth does Tor make someone anonymous on the internet? It is done via letting information pass though multiple nodes before arriving at its destination. Let us consider this example: You are sending data from point A to point E. The original message includes the data and multiple layers of encryption, each layer only revealing the identity of the next node. So when the message is sent from A, B receives it and removes one layer of encryption. B will only know that it has received the data from A and needs to be sent to C. Neither A nor C will be able to decrypt the same layer of encryption as B did. B passes the remaining information to C. Now, C, after decrypting the next layer, will only be able to tell that the message has come from B, and will not have any information about who A is or the fact that A is the origin of the message. This way, at every node, you can only trace back the information to the previous node, but no one can guess which of the nodes in the chain is the origin of the information. C sends it to D in a similar fashion, and D finally sends it to E. The layers of encryption, and the number of nodes are limited by the fact that they significantly affect transfer speeds. However, even a 3 node chain is enough to keep the origin completely anonymous (i.e. your IP address is never revealed). By the way, the nodes are chosen completely randomly, and there is no definite path the information will travel.
Did you realise why this system is called “onion” routing? Just like in an onion there are multiple layers you need to peel out to reach the core, the onion routing technique uses multiple layers of encryption to protect the users data and anonymity.
Considering Tor is completely open source, you can always download the browser onto your computer to access the deep web. Tor is available for all major platforms, including Windows, Mac, Linux/GNU and Android.
Tor can legitimately be used by anyone. Although using it is completely legal, what some websites allow you to do on it is not. I’ll be writing about “What’s on the Deep Web?” in an upcoming article in the series. Websites with the .onion domain can only be accessed via the Tor browser.
Tor is used by a wide range of people. While smugglers and illegal traders use Tor to anonymously practice their activities, NSA (U.S. National Security Agency) uses Tor for protecting their anonymity. Of course, if you are involved in an illegal activity, the NSA would probably be tracking your moves (however anonymous you are on Tor, you can never completely hide, as the Silk Road story suggests. More about it in another blog post.).
NSA regards Tor to be “the King of high-secure, low-latency anonymity” (The Guardian post, linked below), and perhaps it is.
Understanding what Tor is and how Tor works is an important part of how the dark web works. Stay tuned to Technonerds to learn more about the Deep Web and the Dark Web, as many more articles are on their way!
The Guardian: Tor: ‘the king of high-secure, low-latency anonymity'
Wikipedia: Onion Routing
Roger Dingledine; Nick Mathewson; Paul Syverson: "Tor: The Second-Generation Onion Router" (PDF).
Tor Project Website: www.torproject.org