Anonymous networks 101: Into the heart of the Darknet

Here’s a riddle:

  • What’s hidden in plain sight
  • Stretches the entire known world
  • Vilified and Adored
  • Born from a secret US Government project
  • Maintains secret societies
  • Requires one to pass through a ‘secret’ gateway to access?

Answer: It is the infamous Darknet.

Carl Herberger, VP of Security Solutions at Radware

This article will discuss Darknets and what these tools hold for the future of security. This discussion will share how to access and navigate the Darknet for those who are ignorant or otherwise uninitiated to this world.

What is a Darknet?

Under development for years and in use for reported thousands (maybe more), the definition of this ‘secret Internet has been elusive as its evolution is user-defined and built. This shifting innovation landscape results in frequent new concepts on how to apply Darknet technology and further navigate the future of cloaked or otherwise ‘deep’ network relations.

As defined by Wikipedia: “A Darknet is an overlay network that can only be accessed with specific software, configurations, or authorization, often using non-standard communications protocols and ports. The purpose of of darknets is motivated by the desire to hide content, or even the existence of data and communication, from competing business or government interests. The most widespread darknets are governmental and corporate intranets, the use of which is a standard security practice nowadays, friend-to-friend networks (usually used for file sharing with a peer-to-peer connection) and privacy networks such as Tor.”

The notion of the Darknet (a software defined network running ‘on top’ of your current network) is both intimidating and exhilarating. It is the ultimate Software Defined Network (SDN) that is already established. However real it is today, the whole concept of a ‘hidden’ Internet existing as almost a parasite to the public Internet is bizarre to most people. It is also true that this network is really only available to those who have gained the knowledge of how to use it, and sometimes there is a ‘secret’ handshake that is required to gain access. However, once there, the world is similar to the world of Minecraft, as users build obscure and secret communities.

Many suggest that this whole idea is for illicit or illegal activity, however when one dives into the deep ghettos of the Darknet, these assumptions can be heavily shaken and frankly abandoned.

How does one access the Darknet?

Truth be told, a lot of hooey is made about how to access the Darknet. Many suggest that this world is difficult to access and that it may require some kind of advanced technical acumen, or perhaps a special invitation from a ‘club-member’. The reality is that accessing the Darknet is actually quite simple, requiring little technical knowledge or invested time. In fact, not unlike Alice in Wonderland, it is so easy to access that it is possible to fall into it accidently.

First let me say that, as described earlier, a Darknet is any network riding on top of the ‘surface’ Internet that is meant to be obscured to the general population and not readily perceptible to most audiences. It is always software-based.

One of the finest examples of how to describe the Darknet is the often-leveraged software program called The Onion Router (TOR) network. However, it may come as a shock to many that TOR is neither synonymous with the Darknet nor exclusively defines the Darknet.

Normally, when exploring the principles of Darknet anonymity, it is customary to deeply understand the concept of an ‘onion network’, as this is most often mental-model that is used. To keep things simple, let’s focus on this concept. However please understand that many Darknets exist within popular software programs such as video games and social media applications, and are even more obscure through popular business applications we could all name. In fact, much has been made public lately about the new ways in which terrorists are communicating plans through modestly developed Darknets from video games to avoid government monitoring and interference.

The US Navy originally designed TOR. In fact, the way TOR works is really straightforward. Normally, when accessing the ‘everyday’ Internet, your computer directly accesses the server hosting the website you are visiting. Conversely, in an onion network, this direct link is broken, and the data is instead bounced around a number of intermediaries before reaching its destination. The communication registers on the network, but the transport medium is prevented from knowing who is doing the communication. TOR is actually the brand name of a very popular program that leverages the onion router concept wrapped up in a fairly user-friendly format and scaled to be accessible for most of today’s most popular operating systems.

Although technically-savvy users can find a multitude of different ways to configure and use TOR, the most popular cited method is to simply download a version of the ever-popular Firefox browser from the TOR website which supports TOR natively. This ‘TOR’ browser can then be used to surf the surface Web anonymously, giving the user added VPN-like protection against everything from advertisements, to government spying, to prying hackers, to corporate security department data collection. Ironically, TOR opens up a whole new world (even on the surface of the Internet), as it allows one to visit websites published anonymously on the Tor network, which are inaccessible to people not using Tor. This is one of the largest and most popular sections of the Darknet.

TOR website addresses do not look like ordinary URLs. They are composed of random-looking strings of characters followed by .onion. Here is an example of a hidden website address: http://dppmfxaacucguzpc.onion/. That link will take you to a directory of Darknet websites if you have TOR installed, but if you do not, then it is completely inaccessible to you. Using TOR, you can find directories, wikis and free-for-all link dumps that will help you to find anything you are looking for on the Darknet.

TOR is the most popular onion network, but it is not the only one. Another example is The Freenet Project, which offers similar functionality but also allows for the creation of private networks, which means that resources located on a given machine can only be accessed by people who have been manually placed on a ‘friends list’.

Another Darknet system (or ‘privacy network’) called I2P (the Invisible Internet Project) is growing in popularity. Although Tor still has many users, there seems to be a shift towards I2P, which offers a range of improvements such as integrated secure email, file storage and file sharing plug-ins, and integrated social features such as blogging and chat.

How does one secure against Darknets?

Many of my security brethren believe deeply that they can protect corporate networks from Darknets. However, the truth is that protecting any network from Darknets is nearly impossible (for two reasons). First, most security applications that advertise protections are looking at two major areas to protect: the downloading and use of known Darknet executable and also a viral or APT-like signature to the transmission use. Both of these models have huge gaps in implementation effectiveness and moreover, the network and applications behavior of most users leveraging Darknets is almost indistinguishable from legitimate users once the software is downloaded. How can they successfully download the applications to get around modern security applications? There are step-by-step guides on every Darknet application including TOR on how to accomplish said tasks that end up being trivial to accomplish.

In the end, Darknets are inevitable and already existent in most corporate networks. The question now becomes how to understand that they are there and ferret them out like a flu that makes its way into a season and mysteriously disappears as the seasons change. To deny that Darknets are there is ignorance in today’s world and to find them will immeasurably assist your defense. Good hunting!