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

Brad Chacos | Aug. 13, 2013
Learn what lurks beneath the Internet you use every day—a place where free speech, and illicit activity, can flourish.

The New Yorker's Strongbox whistleblower communication tool.

Delve deeper into the Darknet, and you'll find a veritable cornucopia of services dedicated to spreading the word: secure messaging and file-sharing tools, libraries chock-full of political literature, anonymous boards dedicated to intelligent debate, and much, much more. You'll even find a completely anonymous mirror for the DuckDuckGo search engine, in case you're worried about Google or Microsoft looking over your shoulder while you surf the Surface Web.

And those are all things that you can find from the major directories. Imagine the secrets flowing even deeper, beyond the signposts and outside links. None of Onionland's positive benefits--none--would be possible if it didn't offer a level of security that made the service so appealing to less savory types.

That's the rub about free speech: Sometimes people say and do things you don't like.

Intrigued? Read on to learn more about the technical aspects of Onionland, and the tools and precautions you'll need to visit the Darknet yourself.

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.

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.

 

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