The words “dark web” bring to mind all sorts of nefarious imagery. A corner of the web were hackers, thieves, and child pornographers hangout in order to share stories and high-fives. While in some cases that may be entirely true, the dark web isn’t just a place for criminals. As a computer engineer it is easy for me to forget that not everyone really understands the technology they’re using every day or how easy it is to exploit it. Inspired by a recent Facebook post I made, I quickly realized that not everyone knows about the Tor network, and many who have heard of it completely misinterpret why someone like you or I would want to use it. With this in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to educate those who don’t really know about Tor on what it is, how to use it, expose what’s out there, and provide a comprehensive list of reasons why an anonymous network is completely necessary.

What is Tor?

Tor was originally developed for the U.S. Navy in order to protect government communication. Without getting too technical, Tor is an anonymous proxy server that conceals a computer’s IP address. Once connected to the Tor network, your computer is connected to a remote network along with a number of other computers, making it impossible for anyone to know your computer’s physical location or what websites you are viewing.

Isn’t Tor for Criminals?

In addition to basic proxy services, Tor is most notorious for it’s “hidden services.” Hidden services are sites hosted through anonymous servers and are only accessible through the Tor network. These sites are not crawled by Google or other search engines, and can only be found through word-of-mouth or a Tor directory website. Unlike most sites that end with .com, .edu, .gov, etc., Tor sites end with .onion. Those who have heard of Tor primarily link it with these .onion sites. Unlike regular websites, the owners of these sites do not need to reveal credentials and the origins of such sites are incredibly difficult to track. Naturally, criminals saw these sites as a means to sell all manner of products and services from child pornography to stolen credit cards, and everything in between.

In 2014 the FBI, along with the cooperation of officials from 17 other countries executed the largest dark web takedown called “Operation Onymous.” For six months officers were able to monitor and collected evidence against a number of criminal marketplaces, the biggest being The Silk Road 2.0. As a result, over 400 hidden Tor servers were seized and millions of bitcoins had been recovered. In December of 2014 it was reported that another cluster of Tor sites were taken down, however it is unclear whether or not this was due law enforcement efforts. As of today very few sites in onionland still exist. I took the liberty of putting together a small slideshow of some servers I managed to find that were still in operation. Not all of the sites I found were criminal in nature, but this is a small sample of the things that are still available through the dark web. In addition, I also added a diagram, provided by the Tor project website, which explains how the service works.

Legitimate Uses for Tor

By now you may be asking the question, “If I’m not doing anything illegal why would I want to protect my identity online?” While it’s easy to see that Tor is a simple means for criminal elements to engage in illegal activities, there is a number of good reasons a person not intending to do anything illegal would want to use Tor. Journalists, public officials, law enforcement, and others may use Tor in order to speak freely about certain subjects without the worry of losing their jobs. Whistleblowers may utilize Tor in order to speak out against governments or other entities. Those who live in oppressive regimes like China may wish to use Tor in order to bypass censored or restricted services. A large number of websites collect data about you utilizing your IP address or installing cookies in order to track the websites you view. Some individuals may feel uncomfortable that Facebook or kraft foods are obtaining this information. We often tell children not to give out personal details over the internet, yet today’s technology allows IP addresses to be tracked as close as the current street your family resides on. Networks like Tor can offer protection from online predators and pedophiles who could potentially obtain this information. Just like most people would not feel comfortable with strangers walking up and staring into the windows of their home, there are many who do not feel comfortable with ISPs, advertisers, or hackers looking through their browser windows online.

How Do I Connect to Tor?

The easiest method to use Tor is to download the Tor browser. The Tor browser is simply a modified version of firefox. Everything is per-configured, the only thing you need to do is to enable the “No Script” plugin. There is a small “S” button located to the left of the address bar, when not enabled it looks like this: “S!”, once it is turned on the “S” appears with a slash through it. I cannot stress the importance of disabling scripts enough. Hackers often inject undetectable malicious javascript code into websites, advertisers also do this in order to track your online activities. If this type of code is executed on your machine, then the whole point of privacy and using the Tor network is completely lost. I would also recommend disabling or placing tape over your webcam if you are using a machine with an integrated cam and disabling any microphone features. If you are using Windows, typically it is possible to disable both features within the control panel settings.

Now that you’re on Tor you can feel free to locate and browse some of the .onion sites available, or you can choose to go about normal web browsing with an added layer of anonymity. Unfortunately, not all websites will allow you to browse from Tor. Some sites have been forced to block the Tor node from accessing their site due to hackers using the network as a means to execute attacks against their web servers. Tor’s website also lists a number of other tips for protecting your anonymity, along with the things you should and should not do when using the Tor network.

While Tor is not completely foolproof, it is important for users to be able to control who is receiving their information and what is being done with that information once collected. It is also necessary for people to be able to communicate freely without the threat of prosecution from a fascist regime or losing their job by expressing unfavorable opinions. Tor could also be used as a powerful tool for law enforcement, enabling them to gain insight on the tactics criminals are taking and develop new methods to circumvent these activities. There are a number potential uses for a network like Tor, but like many other tools, it is up to the user to decide whether they would like to use its capabilities for good or evil.