Meet Darknet, the hidden, anonymous underbelly of the searchable Web

All about Tor

At the heart of Onionland lies Tor.

Ostensibly, Tor technology is designed to let you surf the Web anonymously, encrypting your connection requests and bouncing them through several in-network “nodes” before finally contacting the Web server that is your final destination. Each node knows only the identity of the nodes it directly connects to—not every connection between your PC and the Web server—and each “hop” between nodes gets its own set of encryption keys.

“The idea is similar to using a twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you—and then periodically erasing your footprints,” the Tor website explains.

Bouncing along so many connections makes browsing sloooooow, but as long as you’re smart enough to take some additional behavorial precautions, Tor is a particularly secure way to browse anonymously online.

Tor’s network doesn’t just offer anonymity to Web surfers, though; it also offers anonymity to Web servers, in the form of Hidden Services. They’re the foundation that Onionland is built upon.

Tor Project

The technology behind Tor Hidden Services is complex. In a nutshell, it allows websites to hide within the Tor network itself, rendering both server and servee completely anonymous. A website set up as a Tor Hidden Service is accessible only when you’re connected to the Tor network. If you’re not connected to Tor, you get nada. The Hidden Services pseudo-suffix, .onion, isn’t resolvable by the Internet’s core DNS servers, and Hidden Service URLs are a jumbled, 16-character alphanumeric mess autogenerated by a public cryptography key when the site is created.

Have an example: http://idnxcnkne4qt76tg.onion/ For those using Tor, that link will lead to the Tor Project website. For everyone else: a dead end.

There’s no chance that you—or Google—will stumble across that site by accident, or any of the secretive Darknets that have sprung up around technologies such as I2P or Freenet (which Alex Wawro touched upon in the August issue of PCWorld magazine).

A word about safety

(Click to enlarge.)

Once you’ve downloaded the Tor browser bundle, you have all you technically need to dive into Onionland, but let’s talk precautions first. You don’t want to delve the Darknet unprepared; a lot of computer-savvy, potentially malicious people are lurking out there. (You did see the parts of this article mentioning the guns and the drugs, right?)

The Tor browser’s Vidalia control panel.

First, realize that Tor alone isn’t enough to protect your privacy, as evidenced by a recent security exploit that embedded itself in many Onionland sites and sent crucial identifying information to a central server, destroying the anonymity that is central to the Darknet. Be sure to turn off JavaScript (click the S button next to the Tor browser’s address bar and select Forbid scripts globally from the drop-down menu) and don’t configure the browser to accept cookies or to run add-ons.

And although this probably doesn’t need to be said, don’t share any personal information with anyone or any site on the Darknet. That includes reusing passwords you use on Surface Web sites, or divulging credit card information. Bitcoins are the preferred currency of this computerized Wild West for a reason.

Speaking of which, be very, very careful when slinging your digital dollars around. The anonymity of Bitcoins and the Darknet makes Onionland a haven for scammers.

Finally, consider visiting Onionland from a virtual machine to protect your actual PC from harm if you do manage to catch something nasty while trawling the depths. You could run a preview copy of Windows 8.1 or the Linux distribution of your choice in Virtualbox if you’d like, or you could (preferably) create a live disc of Tails, a Linux distro built around anonymity and the Tor browser.

Seriously: Don’t muck around in the Dark without taking the proper security precautions. Got it? Good. Now go do it—or better yet, don’t.

This is not for you

In all likelihood, you’ll never need to venture into the Deep Web. The Surface Web contains all the services and tools the average person could ever want. You won’t find any streaming video services or social networks or corporate websites or any other mainstream elements buried in the depths of the Deep Web, and the Darknet is fraught with bogeymen just waiting for you to let down your guard. Enjoy the novelty of an article like this, maybe scope out a directory or two, and then stay well away.

But if you ever do need the sanctity of secure communications and true anonymity—a level of protection that the Surface Web simply can’t provide—then rest easy. Everyone has a voice in the Darknet, down in the depths where even Google’s spiders fear to crawl.

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