The dark web is often thought to be a place of illicit trading and criminal workings. However, the BBC has just made their international news website available to users of the Tor browser.
The dark web is used to describe web sites which are not generally available through search engines, with browsers providing increased anonymity to allow access. Although these sites can be used by criminals, they are also used by those in censorship heavy nations to gain access to information from the rest of the world.
Governments of countries including Iran and Vietnam restrict which websites their citizens can access. The most notorious example of this is the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’. The Chinese state has segregated its internet from much of the rest of the world – blocking residents from using many of Google’s services, accessing social networks and visiting news resources like the BBC.
To circumvent these regulations, browsers such as Tor use a series of encrypted exchanges between computers to reach the destination site. Tor is an acronym for The Onion Router, named after the number of layers of encryption being similar to the layers of an onion.
Originally developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, this technology still receives investment from the US State Department. To hide the user’s identity, the browser sends data via a series of several ‘nodes’ – volunteer computers which act as connecting points for the encrypted information to be passed between the user and the destination site. Because of this randomised data path, the website only sees the information of the last computer in the chain, known as the ‘exit node’.
Therefore, users in countries with tightly regulated internet can use these systems to access content that would otherwise be blocked. As long as the website has a Tor version web address, users should be able to access it through the Tor software wherever they are.
To access these sites on the dark web, users cannot use the usual web address (in this case, bbc.co.uk/news) but instead need a Tor-specific URL. Heading to bbcnewsv2vjtpsuy.onion will allow access to internationally available BBC News content, including foreign language services such as BBC Arabic, BBC Russian and BBC Persian. However, this link will not work in a regular web browser, Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge for example.
The BBC is not the first large organisation to make their site accessible through this method; Facebook launched a Tor-specific mirror of their site back in 2014 to allow access to their services to those with limited internet accessibility. Users can head to https://facebookcorewwwi.onion/ to utilise Facebook, even in countries where it is explicitly blocked on regular internet browsers. Professor Steven Murdoch from UCL worked on the implementation of Facebook’s Tor version, and has also worked with the BBC on their project.
“Onion services take load off scarce exit nodes, preserve end-to-end encryption [and] the self-authenticating domain name resists spoofing,”Prof Steven Murdoch, cyber-security expert from UCL
The BBC are giving access to their news site through the Tor browser in the interest of allowing those in technologically oppressed areas to view unbiased news from around the world. However, only the international services will be available, so resources like BBC iPlayer will still only be viewable within the United Kingdom.
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