The Tor system: Welcome to the dark internet where you can search in secret

Every day, 15,000 people in Britain log on to an obscure online domain where they can search for anything they want in secret. The NSA whistleblower is a fan. It is anonymous. It is growing. And it is often criminal.

Pioneered in 2002 by the US Navy for protecting government communications and soon adopted by techies across the world, the Tor software system has built a reputation as the “dark internet” – an ungoverned and seemingly ungovernable space where web users can surf with complete anonymity.

As the Government calls for Google and other major web companies to block “harmful” content and online links to child pornography and extremist material, fears have been raised that increased policing online is pushing users towards the proxy, which obscures the identity of both users and the sites it hosts.

The Tor Project, a non-profit company which launched across the Atlantic in Walpole, Massachusetts in 2002, exists with the objective of making anonymous web-surfing mainstream.

It claims the numbers of users of its free software doubled between 2011 and 2012, reaching around 600,000 people each year – and, though the numbers are hard to trust, its data suggests there are 15,715 unique daily users in Britain. But as whole companies could be operating from one address, calculating the true usage is impossible.

Tor, whose name is short for The Onion Router, is best-known for hosting outlawed sites such as Pirate Bay. It works by sending web traffic over a series of nodes – or onion routes – adding layers of encryption coding at various stages resulting in online users and browsers, along with the people hosting the websites it features, being untraceable by the authorities.

The fact that those requiring anonymity are extremely mindful of the prying eyes of authorities was reiterated last night as details emerged of the 29-year-old that blew the whistle on the US surveillance system, Prism. Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA and security contractor, has a sticker on his laptop hailing The Tor Project.

On the face of it, Tor is now cultivating a reputation as a family-friendly, mainstream alternative to the web, which in its own words is now something “used every day for a wide variety of purposes by the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and many others”.

Andrew Lewman, Tor’s executive director, told The Washington Post that Tor had seen its popularity grow in the US and Europe amid concerns about online privacy. “Ten years ago, no one had this concept of privacy. But with the [former General David] Petraeus scandal and cellphones recording your location, now this doesn’t seem so far-fetched any more.”

However, according to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), of the 15,000 Brits now thought to be using Tor every day, around 5,000 are believed to be doing so for criminal reasons. With a wide range of services on offer, those illegal purposes are many, varied, and complex.

William (not his real name), 30, who works in film and has a “limited knowledge of computers”, started using Tor a couple of months ago to buy illegal drugs on a site called Silk Road, which has become infamous for allowing people to order narcotics online.

After downloading a Tor browser, which gave him “deep web access, which search engines like Google don’t access”, and entering a numerical address “which can be found pretty easily online”, he found himself on Silk Road. “You sign up like any other site: username, password, etc, and that’s it, you’re there,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: every drug under the sun listed, from all over the world. It seemed unreal. Pictures, ratings, candid reviews about people’s experiences with them,” he said.

Having picked a selection, and spent a couple of hundred pounds worth of Bitcoins – the preferred currency on Tor – “a few days later a letter arrives from Holland, flat-packed with a birthday card within it and a vacuum-packed plastic bag of coke.”

He added: “The same thing happened with the hash, I couldn’t believe it. Drugs had been delivered to my door by Royal Mail. Madness.”

There have been calls for some systems such as Tor to be outlawed. They will likely be repeated after Prime Minister David Cameron said that websites and search engines should take more responsibility for their actions, especially for those that could aid paedophiles in finding images of children being sexually abused.

“I am sickened by the proliferation of child pornography. It pollutes the internet, twists minds and is quite simply a danger to children,” he said on Sunday. “Internet companies and search engines make their living by trawling and categorising the web. So I call on them to use their extraordinary technical abilities to do more to root out these disgusting images. That is why the Government is convening a round-table of the major internet companies, and demanding that more is done.”

But one computer security consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that when an online service was taken away, people were pushed underground. “Following Government collusion with record companies and copyright holders to crack down on file-sharing copyrighted material, users were led to using networks like Tor previously only used by computer geeks and people seeking out illicit material. Same thing applies here, more so. The people who are targeted by this type of legislation will spend hours and go to every effort to seek out material.”

A UK-based blogger who uses Tor for both his writing – so that anything he writes can’t be traced, making him immune to extended online libel laws – and to host a forum on internet security, said that people who have increasing concerns over how their personal information is used were turning to proxy sites like Tor. “These are innocent family people who are not guilty of anything. [They use Tor] because they don’t want themselves or family followed around by councils or the police.”

While a spokesperson for CEOP conceded that “whatever online environment is out there, there will be people who will use it for their own reasons”, she warned potential users: “Even the most technically sound person will make mistakes and leave footprints.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreInside a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm - London

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Sauce Recruitment: Financial Accountant -Home Entertainment

£200 - £250 per day: Sauce Recruitment: 6 month contract (Initially)A global e...

Sauce Recruitment: Financial Accountant -Home Entertainment

£200 - £250 per day: Sauce Recruitment: 6 month contract (Initially)A global e...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project