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Darknet: Protective shield or illusion?

Opinions are divided when it comes to the Darknet. In Hollywood films about cybercriminality, it is a mysterious playing field for criminal machinations. But Internet activists rely on anonymity and data protection experts see it as an excellent protection of privacy on the web.

01 Oct. 2015
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From idealistic freedom fighters to online criminals – everyone feels safe in the Darknet.

Beneath the surface of the Internet lurks the Darknet – a computer network in which every data package is encrypted several times over, and every connection remains anonymous. This is how users who have had it with the insecure World Wide Web go online, at least since revelations of NSA spying and hacker attacks on portal operators such as Sony and Ashley Madison. This Darknet sounds like a sensible alternative – except for its bad reputation.

Gateway to the Darknet

“The Darknet” is a deceptive term. In reality, every network that is closed to the public is a darknet. When people talk about the Darknet, they usually mean Tor's. Once you log in, every connection is transmitted via several randomly selected proxy servers, each of which only knows the ones that come immediately before and after it. The IP address changes automatically. As a result, neither the original sender nor the recipient can be traced.

Jacob Appelbaum was one of the developers of Tor. For this cryptography expert and supporter of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the purpose of the network is to protect privacy. It is no one’s business, which websites a citizen looks at – certainly not the government’s.

“The Tor network is made up of the people it's important to,” says Appelbaum to Zeit Online. “The network is built on mutual assistance and solidarity.” Only anonymous surfing can enable free exchange of opinions in countries such as China, for example, with limited freedom of speech. Whistleblowers also need a forum that does not turn them into targets for governments and organizations.

Ever since Edward Snowden 's revelations, even average web surfers have become more suspicious. At events known as cryptoparties, laypeople are schooled by hackers about how tap-proof communication works in the fully networked era. Is the Darknet simply a more democratic Internet?

From data protection experts and dissidents

Jamie Bartlett sees things somewhat differently . The author of the book The Dark Net says: “You have to differentiate between the Tor browser and the Tor network. With the browser, you can surf anonymously even in the regular Internet.” However, plenty of websites with questionable content are hiding in the network.

There are many examples: websites such as the Silk Road drug platform, which registered more than USD 1.2 billion in sales in just two years. The FBI and Interpol infiltrated and shut down Silk Road in 2014, operator Ross Ulbricht was arrested and later condemned to life in prison. What brought Ulbricht down, however, was not some kind of technical security flaw in the Darknet, but his own carelessness .

Secure enough?

Intelligence services like GCHQ and the NSA are already working to infiltrate Tor with their own servers. That is apparent from NSA documents published by Snowden.

The network is not centrally controlled by any one organization – rather, anyone can add nodes, even public administrations. If any individual operates a critical mass of proxy servers, they can work past the data transfer anonymity protections. This is just one of many approaches taken by governments worldwide against the supposedly isolated networks.

How can you sum up the Darknet in a few words? Perhaps like this: alongside many dark spots there is also much light. But 100-percent security – it does not have that.

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