Monday

From the End of the Internet to Darknet and Freenet

Have you ever wondered how much information is actually available online, how many web pages actually exist? Have you ever visited the end of the internet ?

Most people tend to see the information they are directed towards, random browsing and using Google and the other search engines will in fact only scratch the surface of the information that is really available. The internet is actually much, much bigger than the contents of the Google Index, what I want to do is explain about one of those sources of information which will never, ever appear in the results of your favorite search engine.

In the early 90s, a student at Edinburgh University came up with the concept of an anonymous storage system, at first glance a thesis on "Distributed, Decentralised Information Storage and Retrieval System" has little practical value to those concerned with preserving free speech and fighting censorship. But when Freenet was released in 2000 by Ian Clarke, it offered a powerful tool for those who wished to share information freely and anonymously. The creator of Freenet had created something very special and very controversial.

 FreeNet Logo
Now we are venturing into something of the Internet underground here, and as such definitions and naming conventions can get a little blurred. Expressions such as the deep web, darknet, dark space and dark web are not always clearly defined and mean different things to different people. But in these spaces there is one thing which is in common, anonymity is king. Here you will find ordinary people alongside criminals, terrorist, hackers and anarchists posting, communicating and publishing.

It can be a fascinating area but beware, this is not a sanitized and censored internet, you won't find any of these pages from a search engine and for some parts you wouldn't want to. What it does illustrate is that as governments and agencies across the globe who are monitoring our internet usage and investing in complicated data mining procedures to identify terrorist behavior may be largely wasting their time. They are on the whole only going to catch the thick ones, for in the main they are merely spying on us, the ordinary innocent web users, the real bad guys don't use the fluffy world wide web, they're all unmonitored on the dark side of the net.   Do you think if Bin Laden and his followers where using Twitter to organize Al Qaeda, that they'd still be at large?

Anyway lets get back to Freenet, which represents quite a large portion of this alternate world. The Freenet project is the culmination of Ian Clarke's vision, and it is quite an achievement. The reason behind Freenet is perhaps best illustrated by the quote on one of their pages -

"I worry about my child and the Internet all the time, even though she's too young to have logged on yet. Here's what I worry about. I worry that 10 or 15 years from now, she will come to me and say 'Daddy, where were you when they took freedom of the press away from the Internet?'" 
--Mike Godwin, Electronic Frontier Foundation

To access the world of Freenet you need to install some software, you can't just pop in a web address or a URL.  The 'Freesite' pages don't exist on a specific server, thus they cannot be removed easily, the 'free pages' exist on distributed drives of the many Freenet users.  It's all encrypted and even each specific Freenet user has no idea what is contained on their drive, an important part  of the anonymity.

Freenet has web pages, chat sites, forums and even search facilities, it is all easily accessible after installing the software which uses a little bit of your hard drive, a little of your bandwidth to support the Freenet network.  It's very simple to install and runs as a background service in your taskbar, you certainly need no real technical knowledge to install it takes literally a minute or so, you don't really notice it's running.


You can run Freenet in various modes, ranging from Low to Maximum, the top mode is an implementation of a darknet, here all the information can only be accessed by trusted friends (specifically nodes in the Freenet network).   The higher the security level, the lower the performance simply because you are using less nodes in the network, much like P2P applications the more people who share the quicker the download.

The Freenet Index Page

When you install Freenet and launch the program, the Freenet interface is accessed via a web browswer, mine launched Chrome in Incognito mode to access the Freenet index.  You can then view, search and download any content that is published on the Freenet network.  The idea is that you cannot identify who, where or what is hosting, requesting or viewing any of the content, especially if you are using in Darknet mode.

It is fascinating but before you decide to take a look, you should understand the concept of Freenet which is dedicated to the completely free transmission and storage of information.   It makes no judgement on any information stored there -and as such there are Freenet sites about many subjects which are illegal in most countries.  Because the network is anonymous Freenet hosts Terrorist handbooks, Guides for  Preparing Poisons written by Islamic fundamendalists, Guides to cybercrime, activists guides and of course all sorts of pornography including paedophilia.   When you start up your Freenet client, you are a node in the network, an anonymous node and you have no control over what is encrypted and stored on your little part of the network.

If you want to control what your Node is storing or transmitting, then don't use Freenet, you simply can't - it doesn't work that way.  If the Freenet network allowed this control, you would then be feasibly resposible for controlling the content, rather than just an anonymous node with no knowledge of your part in the network.  It would be extremely difficult to intercept or identify a Freenet user, the main vulnerability is one idenitfied on the site - the infiltration of nodes to infect the network and intercept information, but of course the darknet setup should be immune to this.

It's an impressive technology that's for sure, but of course most discussion usually tends to focus on the amount of criminal and illegal content that is definitely stored there.  You can read up on their philosphy, the Freenet project and download the client at the Freenet homepage here - Freenet Project


Whatever your thoughts about this, I for one am thankful for people like Ian Clarke who value freedom of expression so highly.

PS
Any technical mistakes in my brief explanation of Freenet are entirely down to me.

0 comments: