Facebook dabbles in 'Dark Web' for anonymous browsing

04/11/2014

A new way to access Facebook securely and anonymously via the "dark Web" could provide a model for other site, letting users browse the social network anonymously via Tor.

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Last week, the social network unveiled a new URL for its service, facebookcorewwwi.onion, serving up a version of Facebook’s service accessible only via the Tor anonymity software.

Tor users include dissidents trying to avoid censorship, criminals, and U.S. government workers who need to escape scrutiny from foreign security services.

Facebook says it launched the site to better serve people who already access its services via Tor but are sometimes blocked by its automatic security controls. The organization behind Tor says hundreds of thousands of people access the site this way, for example from within Iran and China, countries where government authorities block Facebook access.

Facebook’s new Tor link could be especially useful in countries like Iran, China and North Korea, where the social media site has been banned for fear that it will be used by opposition parties and movements to mobilize protest.

Users accessing the site via Tor will not be anonymous to Facebook itself, which will still require individuals them to log in – most likely using their real names (the site has always been hostile to the use of pseudonyms, though it has relaxed this rule in recent months after vocal protests in the US by members of the LGBT and drag communities) but will frustrate law enforcement or hackers watching a person’s computer.

Runa Sandvik, a former Tor engineer who advised the social network on the project, told Wired that the change was a “huge benefit”: “You get around censorship and local adversarial surveillance, and it adds another layer of security on top of your connection.”

Tor works by bouncing internet connections around a global network of users, making it extremely difficult for surveillance software to connect the dots between an individual’s computer and the sites they’re accessing.

Prior to Facebook’s new Tor address this sort of connection pattern makes it extremely difficult for would-be anonymous users to access the social network: the site would see the connection jumping from country to country, assume the user had been hacked and block them.

Privacy advocates have welcomed Facebook’s decision and called upon other tech giants such as Twitter and Google to follow suit – although many companies will not want to antagonize countries or even local law enforcement who have been enjoying a ‘golden age’ of digital surveillance in recent years.

View the official Facebook announcement here

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