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In the 'deep web', Freenet software allows users complete anonymity as they share viruses, criminal contacts and child pornography

Reposted from The Guardian. Author: Andy Beckett. Date: Nov 26, 2009.

Freenet means controversial information does not need to be stored in physical data havens such as this one, Sealand. Photograph: Kim Gilmour/Alamy

Fourteen years ago, a pasty Irish teenager with a flair for inventions arrived at Edinburgh University to study artificial intelligence and computer science. For his thesis project, Ian Clarke created "a Distributed, Decentralised Information Storage and Retrieval System", or, as a less precise person might put it, a revolutionary new way for people to use the internet without detection. By downloading Clarke's software, which he intended to distribute for free, anyone could chat online, or read or set up a website, or share files, with almost complete anonymity.

"It seemed so obvious that that was what the net was supposed to be about – freedom to communicate," Clarke says now. "But [back then] in the late 90s that simply wasn't the case. The internet could be monitored more quickly, more comprehensively, more cheaply than more old-fashioned communications systems like the mail." His pioneering software was intended to change that.

His tutors were not bowled over. "I would say the response was a bit lukewarm. They gave me a B. They thought the project was a bit wacky … they said, 'You didn't cite enough prior work.'"

Undaunted, in 2000 Clarke publicly released his software, now more appealingly called Freenet. Nine years on, he has lost count of how many people are using it: "At least 2m copies have been downloaded from the website, primarily in Europe and the US. The website is blocked in [authoritarian] countries like China so there, people tend to get Freenet from friends." Last year Clarke produced an improved version: it hides not only the identities of Freenet users but also, in any online environment, the fact that someone is using Freenet at all.

Installing the software takes barely a couple of minutes and requires minimal computer skills. You find the Freenet website, read a few terse instructions, and answer a few questions ("How much security do you need?" … "NORMAL: I live in a relatively free country" or "MAXIMUM: I intend to access information that could get me arrested, imprisoned, or worse"). Then you enter a previously hidden online world. In utilitarian type and bald capsule descriptions, an official Freenet index lists the hundreds of "freesites" available: "Iran News", "Horny Kate", "The Terrorist's Handbook: A practical guide to explosives and other things of interests to terrorists", "How To Spot A Pedophile [sic]", "Freenet Warez Portal: The source for pirate copies of books, games, movies, music, software, TV series and more", "Arson Around With Auntie: A how-to guide on arson attacks for animal rights activists". There is material written in Russian, Spanish, Dutch, Polish and Italian. There is English-language material from America and Thailand, from Argentina and Japan. There are disconcerting blogs ("Welcome to my first Freenet site. I'm not here because of kiddie porn … [but] I might post some images of naked women") and legally dubious political revelations. There is all the teeming life of the everyday internet, but rendered a little stranger and more intense. One of the Freenet bloggers sums up the difference: "If you're reading this now, then you're on the darkweb."

The modern internet is often thought of as a miracle of openness – its global reach, its outflanking of censors, its seemingly all-seeing search engines. "Many many users think that when they search on Google they're getting all the web pages," says Anand Rajaraman, co-founder of Kosmix, one of a new generation of post-Google search engine companies. But Rajaraman knows different. "I think it's a very small fraction of the deep web which search engines are bringing to the surface. I don't know, to be honest, what fraction. No one has a really good estimate of how big the deep web is. Five hundred times as big as the surface web is the only estimate I know."

Unfathomable and mysterious

Full story at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/nov/26/dark-side-internet...

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