ProPublica and the Dark Web

Not for profit news publisher ProPublica has launched a version of it’s site on the hidden Tor network.

This BBC iWonder guide explains how Tor, which forms a part of the dark web, was originally built by the U.S government as a way of sending and receiving secure messages. It was released into the public domain by the original developers in order to provide additional anonymity through increased traffic; ie, more populated lines of communications make it yet more difficult to pinpoint specific messages.

Tor (which stands for ‘The Onion Router’), works by providing three layers of encryption (like the layers of an onion) and a distributed network system which makes it impossible to track messages back to the original sender. For this reason the dark web is used by terrorist organisations, child pornogrophers, drug dealers and other criminals to keep their illegal activity private. However, along with all the bad stuff, the dark web also provides a safe channel of communication with anonymity for whistleblowers and safety for activists living under oppressive regimes.

ProPublica has been tracking and publishing data on how a range of international publications are blocked by China through its Firewall project since November 2014. Wired reports that the move to offer news through the private channel of the dark web is designed to make it safe for Chinese readers in particular to access uncensored news reporting.

‘The move, ProPublica says, is designed to offer the best possible privacy protections for its visitors seeking to read the site’s news with their anonymity fully intact. Unlike mere SSL encryption, which hides the content of the site a web visitor is accessing, the Tor hidden service would ensure that even the fact that the reader visited ProPublica’s website would be hidden from an eavesdropper or Internet service provider.’

ProPublica is not the first legitimate organisation to publish on the Dark Web. In 2014 The Verge reported that Facebook had created a Tor link to it’s site for users who wanted to remain anonymous. Their article clarifies that any internet user with a Tor enabled browser can anonymously access a website, but a website’s own security features may treat a Tor user as a botnet and block or disrupt access. Specifically allowing access from Tor users as Facebook did or launching a version of a site which runs on the ‘hidden network’ as does the new ProPublica site provides a more reliable service. In the case of commercially motivated platforms it could also open up new streams of previously unreachable revenue;

‘Now anyone with a Tor-enabled internet browser can visit facebookcorewwwi.onion/ to get a secure connection to Facebook’s servers that provides end-to-end encryption. Ideally, this means that Tor users, some of whom may be using the software to circumvent government censorship or restrictions of the internet in places such as China or Iran, will be able to get onto Facebook reliably and without worrying about leaking their identifying information. This could help Facebook continue to grow and add more users around the globe.’