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Subternet – An Insider’s Guide to the Web’s Secret Underbelly February 1, 2007

Posted by Dan in Main, Must Read, Science, Technology.
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Recently, one of my readers mentioned the possibility of a kind of “black market” internet. Its a place where freedom of information and anonymity run hand in hand… a secret web called the “Subternet.”

If you’ve ever heard the term “terrorist chatter,” then you’ve got all the proof you need that a secret international program dubbed Project ECHELON is monitoring global electronic communications. This is far from conspiracy theory, however, as this is a fairly well documented system for a covert project. In fact, it is estimated that the National Security Agency (NSA), located in Ft. Meade, Maryland (just down the road from where I grew up) captures enough digital information to fill the Library of Congress every hour! Even with today’s highest speed supercomputers, that is a massive amount of information to crunch. Hence the term terrorist chatter: The system is able to monitor the quantity of terror related communications, but not necessarily the contents of those messages.

What does this mean for you? Well, suppose you were curious about how Nuclear Weapons are constructed… you might visit a website like this one, detailing the design of several kinds of nuclear bombs. RED FLAG. You have probably accidentally alerted internet monitoring systems in place to scan for terrorist activity. Not to worry though, as I said before, the system is most likely not capable of investigating every single curious web hit, and barring an extended history of online communications with the Middle East, you’re probably fine. But…. computers are getting faster.

In the near future, ECHELON’s successor will do an in depth check into all suspicious communications activity, meaning your web traffic, cell calls, and even credit card purchases will all be monitored, cross-referenced and recorded, within the next decade. Some of you might be wondering how something like this even possible? “The Internet is a global system. I know my employer can watch what I do online, but if I’m not browsing the web from within the NSA, then how do they know which pages I’m visiting?” The answer lies in the foundation of the Internet.

If you’ve been browsing for any period of time, you’ve probably run into the term DNS or Domain Name System, but you might not know what it is. In a nutshell, the internet actually runs on numbers. When you type a website into your address bar (something like http://www.webmerica.org), you’re actually asking a computer to convert that text into an IP address (example. 255.255.255.0). That IP address is what you’re really connecting to, almost like a phone number. Now here’s the catch… the main DNS computers, from which the rest of the world just duplicates, are owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Every time you visit a website, you’re actually asking the USDOC to send you that site. Tying in to those communications would be child’s play for the National Security Agency.

So, how can you avoid this kind of an intrusion into your personal life? By staying one step ahead of current monitoring techniques. There are various programs that will route your web traffic through a “proxy.” In other words, as far as the outside world is concerned, your online activity is coming from that “proxy” server and not your own computer. However, I recommend the beta program known as The Onion Router (TOR). Originally developed with the US Naval Research Laboratory, a TOR network relays your internet communication amongst several random, encrypted servers, before finally reaching the website you requested. However, the program is still in its infancy, and I do not suggest it for serious internet anonymity (such as to avoid a hostile government which has placed restrictions on the web inside their own countries). The program is growing though, and I feel its the “one to watch” for the next couple of years. Right now, hiding your web activity from Government Anti-Terror programs is probably a little extreme. But in a couple of years, it may become necessity.


The Subternet:

Ever since the beginnings of the web, with 14.4 modems and AOL dial-up, there has been a “black market” to the Internet. However, what once was found only in WAREZ IRC chat rooms, private rationed ftp sites, and other innovative comm systems like KDX, Hotline, and Carracho, has progressed through Napster and on into BitTorrent. Although, unlike most forms of black market, when it comes to the internet, “free” is the key. Everything today is about the free distribution of information (copyrighted or not), and the collaborative effort to disseminate that information. With a program like BitTorrent, each person downloads specific portions of a file from a single host, which they then send to everyone else in the swarm who hasn’t received that portion yet, thereby distributing the required bandwidth between every downloader, and reducing the load upon the server.

In other words, the black market of the Internet has begun to move off of the web and onto our own computers (which then speak directly to one another). This is the foundation of Peer-to-Peer communications. Already, torrent tracker sites are requiring users to register, creating closed file-sharing systems mostly isolated from the Internet at large. This isolation will only greaten as it increases protection from Anti-copyright infringement agencies. As a result, the black market will move further away from the web at large. It is only a matter of time before private DNS servers will allow “Internets” that remain isolated from the web as a whole. These “Subternets” will have to be patrolled by governments seeking monitoring rights, and their monitoring will necessarily become “active” (compared to the “passive” monitoring systems we see today). It will mean the true birth of both the “web-cop” and the “underground network.”

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