What is the Darknet?

The term "darknet" refers to a number of projects that aim to enable their users to communicate anonymously and uncensored over the Internet. Anyone using the software of such a project can surf the Internet anonymously. For this purpose, the users of the respective project form a network among themselves, the so-called "darknet". Strictly speaking, there are several different darknets, which differ in their technical implementation. In practice, the word "darknet" usually refers to the largest representative of these networks: the TOR network. To understand why the TOR project exists, who benefits from it, and what the whole thing has to do with arms trafficking, it is helpful to look at the history of the TOR project.

Emergence of the Darknet (TOR network)

Around the year 2000, the code was created that today forms the basis for the largest "darknet": The TOR network. TOR stands for "The Onion Router", based on the technical principle of how data is sent within the network. At the time, the project was mainly sponsored by the U.S. military. Among other things, it was hoped that it would be possible to disguise one's own communications abroad. Later, civil rights organizations also recognized the potential of the project and supported it. Today, the TOR project has an average of between 2 and 3 million users every day (as of December 2021).

How to use the Darknet?

Even with very little computer knowledge, you can visit the TOR project 's site and access the Darknet in less than five minutes. Beforehand, you need to download and install the TOR browser. This is completely free and legal. Once the TOR browser is launched, using it is hardly different from browsing with common browsers. You may surf the net a little slower. With the TOR browser, you can also access "normally" accessible pages of the Internet, just significantly more anonymous and uncensored. Additionally, you have the possibility to access so-called "hidden services". These are services that can only be accessed from the TOR network. As long as you do not explicitly search for criminal content when surfing with the TOR browser, you will not find it.

Why use the darknet?

What's the point of using this browser if everything looks the same as before? By using the TOR browser, you surf practically anonymously. This protects your personal data from advertisers who collect and sell data or potential attackers who want to identify it. In addition, providers cannot block individual pages, as was already the case in Turkey and other countries. Even the NSA admits in an internal presentation leaked by Edward Snowden that it has a very hard time identifying TOR users on a large scale. So if you want to know something you don't want anyone to find out about - whether it's a medical condition, a political opinion, or perhaps in general what sites you've visited on the Internet - TOR can be used to mask your identity. For some people, this anonymity is extremely important. For example, whistleblowers, activists or journalists depend on anonymization services like the TOR project, because they can use it to share their information without being traceable. Edward Snowden also recommends the TOR network if you want to protect your privacy.

What does this have to do with crime?

Of course, not only "normal" citizens, whistleblowers and journalists have a need for anonymity, but also criminals who fear prosecution and therefore want to keep their identity secret. Thus, services gradually emerged on the darknet that offer weapons, drugs, or images of sexual violence against children. As with any tool, there are abusive uses of the darknet. The darknet in itself, is not illegal or illegitimate per se. One can even benefit from it personally, because one gets a possibility to surf anonymously, or indirectly, because it gives access to neutral reporting, for example. However, the fact that it can be abused by people with illegal intentions cannot be prevented.

About Darknet, Deep Web and Dark Corners of the Surface Web

The Internet, which can be accessed by the common search engines such as Bing or Google, is often referred to as the "surface web" . Now, it may be that a content cannot be found by search engines because, for example, it is a special library catalog whose content is not understood by search engines. Or because the provider of the content has erected a technical prohibition sign for search engines and they therefore (have to) ignore the content. Such content then belongs to the "Deep Web". One part of the Deep Web is the "Darknet", which is the subject of this article.

One does not only come across illegal content on the Deep Web or the Darknet. Any computer that has access to the Internet can provide any content, and so there are numerous normally accessible sites on which one can come across disturbing content. Many sites on the public surface web are poorly moderated and quasi-anonymous, so it's almost impossible to determine who you're talking to, and people spread illegal content there, too.

This article was written in cooperation with the project Chaos macht Schule by Chaos Computer Club Mannheim e.V.