Although the “dark web” may have criminal connotations, the surge in cybersecurity thats and news of government surveillance have started to transform the haven for black market traders into a slightly more private person of the web as a whole.
The non-profit news organization ProPublica has just jumped onboard; it launched a version of its site that now runs as a “hidden service” on the Tor network.
ProPublica has explained that its decision is an effort to offer the best possible privacy protections for its visitors, who may have a vested interest in reading the site’s articles anonymously. The Tor service allows readers to visit without leaving a trace for any eavesdropper or Internet service provider to detect.
Mike Tigas, ProPublic’s developer who worked on the Tor hidden service, explained further:
“Everyone should have the ability to decide what types of metadata they leave behind… We don’t want anyone to know the you came to us or what you read.”
A rare perspective given our modern era, when collecting big data and sending out internet cookies is the norm for all other major news providers.
You may be wondering what the difference is between users visiting ProPublica from Tor or and Propublica being itself broadcast by Tor. The levels of security are pretty similar, but Tor readers visiting ProPublica’s regular site are slightly more vulnerable due to something called an exit node. The exit node occurs when a computer in tor’s network of volunteer proxies makes a final connection to whatever destination site. If the user is reading part of the ProPublica website that isn’t yet encrypted, the malicious relay could see whatever the user sees. Even if the pages were encrypted, the node could still see that the reader was visiting ProPublica.
If a Tor user visits ProPublica from its own hidden service, absolutely nothing can be traced.
All these precautions may seem a little over the top to many of ProPublica’s readership, but Tigas realized it might be a good idea when the site was working on a report about Chinese online censorship. The report taught the ProPublica team how important it was to make sure the site was safe to visit for Chinese readers.
The varying censorship rules of different countries presents one of the many legitimate uses of Tor, which has been given a bit of a bad wrap due to its use for narcotics dealing and even child pornography.
Plenty of other major companies have seen fit to utilize the “dark web” such as the Guardian and the New Yorker, both of which utilize SecureDrop software that allows anonymous users to leak possible news stories.
“Personally I hope other people see that there are uses for hidden services that aren’t just hosting illegal sites,” continued Tigas. “Having good examples of sites like ProPublica and Securedrop using hidden services shows that these things aren’t just for criminals.”