The Deep Web used to be accessible only to the most the tech-savvy among us. Today, it’s open to almost anyone with a computer and a modicum of technical know-how. And soon, you’ll be able to create a site on the anonymous Web with just a few clicks.
The team behind the Tor Project, the world’s most popular online anonymity service, is planning a major improvement to “hidden services”—the name given to anonymous websites on the network—which includes simple point-and-click website deployment that almost anyone can understand and execute.
The overhaul is an attempt to address one of the Deep Web's biggest problems.
Tor is designed to give individuals around the world anonymous access to the Internet, including the ability to publish their own anonymous websites. The problem is that publishing one of these sites, called "hidden services," requires a relatively high level of technical sophistication. Tor’s own how-to website describes some of the steps as too complex to cover, telling readers to look elsewhere for guidance.
Even the address is complicated: A Tor hidden service, which hides the website's IP address and location, typically has a URL that looks like this: "http://tnysbtbxsf356hiy.onion," referring to the "The Onion Router" from which Tor gets its name.
That complexity acts a barrier excluding the vast majority of Tor and Internet users in general from ever attempting to create a Deep Web site because they don’t have the know-how to do so.
A point-click-publishing system that greatly simplifies the process will raise hidden services to the level of regular blogs, and could become a tool so powerful that it changes the way global media works. The new, easy-to-use publishing system, is early in the design stages right now. There is no precise timeline for release.
Today, many Tor users are limited to using the anonymity network as a middleman on the way to sending leaked documents to journalists (see the New Yorker's StrongBox). Tomorrow, everyone may be able to publish anonymously on their own without relying on third parties.That means that creating the next WikiLeaks or Silk Road might not require a hacker’s lifetime of programming practice.
“We have a lot of people asking for [point-click-publish hidden services] around the world,” Andrew Lewman, Tor’s executive director, told the Daily Dot. “As part of the design phase, we're working on user stories or use cases to help shape what we produce.
Some prototype use cases could involve human rights activists communicating and coordinating without exposing their networks, or law enforcement working with whistleblowers or informants in criminal organizations, or victims of abuse reaching out to safely have a conversation with someone to find help and resources. However, time will tell which use cases make the most sense.”
Early plans for point-click-publish hidden services were discussed at Tor’s 2014 Winter Developer Meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. Much of the meeting was spent discussing future expansion plans for Tor including an anonymous instant messenger and an anonymous mobile phone operating system, both of which aim to greatly expand the potential uses of the Tor anonymity network.
Tor, a $2 million per year nonprofit employing 30 developers in 12 countries—a “a small organization” with “limited resources,” Lewman said—has increasingly made easy usability a priority since its 2002 creation. Back then, only advanced users could access the network by diving into their operating system’s command line.
Hidden services didn’t even exist until 2004, and even then they were only tacked on as an extra feature. Today, the major overhaul aims to make them both highly secure and easy to use, the mantra that Tor is increasingly living by.
“Usable secure software is a priority of ours,” Lewman told the Daily Dot.
“It does no one any good to have perfectly secure but unusable software in the hands of the general user.”
Photo by Dubravko Sorić/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)