Although the Internet is considered a bastion of freedom and anonymity, in reality, it’s hardly that way. Starting from the government that wants to know everything about you or restrict your access to information to companies like Facebook and Google that follow your online behavior to boost their own commercial success, you are always “on the radar” when online. Luckily, there are ways around that issue.
For those who want to know how to hide your identity online or reach restricted online resources freely, without being spied on, we will guide you through the solutions IT industry has to offer for that. But, a little background first.
Online anonymity reasoning
Many governments have tightened control over citizens’ access to free information on the Internet, using the fight against “fake news” as a shield against people’s outcry. This state of things is clearly illustrated in the annual Freedom on the Net 2018 report by American non-governmental organization Freedom House. It covers 65 countries showing the level of Internet freedom there.
According to the report:
- 26 of the 65 countries have experienced a decrease in Internet freedom, including Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Venezuela. Improvements were registered in 19 countries, including Armenia and Gambia
- 17 of 65 countries restrict the activities of online media under the excuse of fighting “fake news” and online manipulation
- 22 countries have blocked at least one social network or communication platform
- 13 countries have the cases of citizens’ persecution for sharing allegedly false information
- 18 countries have increased state supervision, often avoiding independent supervision and weakening the level of encryption to gain unlimited access to user data
Of course, all this has to have a solid reason. The most popular excuse the governments use for blocking Internet resources is “for security reasons”, be it the fight against anti-government protests or terrorism, like in cases with social media ban in Chad or Telegram ban in Russia. Besides, in almost half of the 26 countries where freedom of access to the Internet has declined, it was due to the election process.
Of course, people are not gonna simply go with such restrictions. New taboos only fuel new solutions. Especially with the abilities modern technology offers. One of them is VPN.
VPN as a way of anonymous Internet surfing
More and more users are looking towards VPN (Virtual Private Network) services to protect personal data. The working principle of a VPN tool is pretty simple. It just provides a kind of tunnel between a user and a secure VPN server, while encrypting, modifying, and protecting the data exchanged between the user’s device and websites or web services.
This means three things:
- Access to any blocked sites or apps, bypassing location-based restrictions
- Wi-Fi safety thanks to encryption
Basically, VPNs keeps user’s online activity unrestricted and private. That is why many countries try to fully or partially block access to known VPN service providers or even outlaw VPN services to maintain control.
VPN usage under government control:
- United Arab Emirates
VPN usage fully banned:
- North Korea
There are also countries that don’t have a legal ban on VPN services, but have very strict Internet censorship laws:
No matter the extent of VPN services restriction, the governments of all these countries have one common goal of controlling the information their citizens can access via the Internet. And that is the 21st century equivalent of shutting down newspapers and burning printed publications.
Luckily, VPN is not the only way to enjoy freedom on the web.
Blockchain beyond cryptocurrency
Although people still mostly associate blockchain with Bitcoin and other cryptos, it is much more than a digital currency. In fact, blockchain is just another type of a database — a decentralized one, where nothing can be added or changed without the consent of all its participants. If you want to find out more about it and Redwerk experience with it, go to our previous article.
But what does it have to do with Internet freedom? The answer is dApps (decentralized applications) that are based on the blockchain architecture. The main difference of those apps from centralized anonymous ones is the inability to hack them as the blockchain architecture is decentralized and has no central controlling authority. It is an opportunity to both stay anonymous and protect your data.
However, many countries still have no explicit regulation of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, and it still remains in a legal gray area for most of them.
Now, as we have touched on the benefits of decentralization, let’s move to more large-scale solutions it offers for freedom online. And these would be anonymous networks, but there is an issue of “dark web” reputation.
Dark web or Free web?
Like anything uncontrolled and totally free, anonymous networks, known as dark web, are often judged. “Dark” stands for the lesser-known corners of the Internet and creates a shade mostly because of tech differences with the commercial web and misunderstanding by the public and media.
All of that makes people think of the dark web as a place where someone sells weapons or drugs. But it’s not that one-sided. Defining the dark web only by the bad things that happen there leaves out the innovative search engines and privacy-conscious social networking available only via those networks.
So, back to anonymous networks themselves.
Tor (The Onion Router) is the most famous anonymous network that is, in fact, a proxy system that allows establishing an anonymous and secure network connection. The access to the system is carried out through free software that uses the technology of “onion” routing. The information is protected by several “layers” of cipher and is sent through a chain of network nodes. Tor is available for Windows, Linux, and Mac platforms. You can download the software from the official site.
How does Tor work?
Tor members gain access to Internet resources through other network users. Users can also create and upload anonymous web services to the network, which will be accessed through special pseudo-domains .onion. Note that using Tor, like any other anonymous network, leads to a significant loss of speed. Downloadable Tor software forms a chain of nodes through which encrypted data will be transmitted. From time to time, the chain is rebuilt and begins to use new nodes.
It should be understood that installing Tor is not enough to become invisible online. For this, you will need to install additional components. Tor only manages the encryption process and determines the way that data travels through the network of relays.
Besides, using Tor does not guarantee you complete safety. The last node in the chain sees the traffic in unencrypted form, which hackers use as a possibility to steal passwords and logins.
Keep in mind that using anonymous networks and software is forbidden in the list of countries, as they fall into the same rules as VPN software. However, banning Tor is not that easy. Russia’s attempt to do that was unsuccessful:
“Governments can block access to VPN services by blocking access from IP addresses linked to VPN providers. Blocking Tor is more complex, and requires identifying and blocking the destination nodes traffic travels through rather than the URL or IP address”
I2P (invisible internet project) is another way to anonymous internet surfing. It’s an open-source software created for organizing a highly secure encrypted network. It is mostly used for anonymous hosting (creating sites, forums, chats, file sharing servers).
How does I2P work?
Web surfing is not the main objective here. So, I2P does not provide secure access to the global network as Tor does. Another difference of I2P from Tor is the routing method. Tor uses “onion” routing, and I2P uses “garlic” routing. If Tor creates a chain of nodes to transmit traffic, I2P uses input and output tunnels. So, requests and responses go through different nodes. Every ten minutes, these tunnels are reformed. “Garlic” routing implies that a data package (“garlic”) can contain a lot of “cloves”, that is, encrypted messages, both its own and others. Each with instructions for its delivery. Due to this, the recipient server cannot accurately determine the sender, and vice versa.
Last but not least, this one we are the most excited to talk about as Redwerk has been involved in its improvement. But first things first.
Freenet is a decentralized and strictly anonymous P2P network that runs on top of the Internet and includes a large number of peer computers allowing publishing any material without the ability to determine the source. It represents an attempt to eliminate the censorship of user communications coming from the vision that no one is allowed to decide what is acceptable.
How does Freenet work?
Information distributed through Freenet is flying from point A to point B through an intermediary is encrypted. Moreover, none of the network participants knows its source and final destination of the data package. Thus, the data flying through dozens of intermediaries remains hidden. Moreover, Freenet can work in F2F (Friend-to-Friend) mode, when your computer only communicates with the computers of people you personally trust.
Anonymity is achieved by data encryption, offering several layers of protection that the user has to choose. The lower the level of protection, the easier it is to intercept the data and violate anonymity. The higher the level of protection, the slower the connection because multiple encryption takes time.
Freenet improvement & Redwerk
Freenet is constantly improving, striving to adapt it for use in countries where authorities try to ban its citizens from using it. And its developers have already succeeded with that in the case with China thanks to the use of steganography methods, which, unlike simple encryption, allow hiding the fact of data transfer.
Now back to the issue of speed we have mentioned. Encryption takes time and slows down the network. And that is a problem for its users, which Redwerk has worked on eliminating.
Another issue our team was solving when working with this project was the fact that the files on the web were easily lost. That is why we were involved in improving KeepAlive plugin that Freenet already had, fixing the bugs there to allow people to preserve content on Freenet selectively.
What can you do with Freenet?
Let’s breakdown the possibilities this network offers:
- Simply going through the main index page and reading everything there, getting to new pages
- Creating own freesite page (the manual even includes the primitive HTML code of this page indicating where to write your text)
- Creating own blog or so-called “flog” (free blog) with the help of another program
- Creating a mail (Freemail), installing a local torrent client or software for accessing the forums
How to enter Freenet?
To enter Freenet, just download and run it. Freenet and other required components will be installed on your computer. When the installation process is complete, the Freenet user interface page will open in the browser. The program works with most routers.
For greater security, you should use a separate browser for Freenet, preferably in privacy mode. IE doesn’t work with Freenet in the best way, so it’s preferable to use Chrome, Firefox or Opera.
By default, the Freenet client will work in neutral mode, automatically connecting to other nodes. However, if you know several people who already use this network, you can add them as friends, and then turn on the high-security mode. In this case, your Freenet client will only establish a connection with friends, so it will be almost impossible to detect your presence on the network.
We have introduced you to the list of the most famous solutions that allow you to more or less secure your activity on the web. Although total invisibility and anonymity on the Internet is still only a concept, there are ways to increase it, protecting yourself from the theft of personal data and intrusive advertising, getting free access to information and communication.