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'Secret Internet' operates as known trading ground for porn, drugs

Friday - 4/27/2012, 11:23am  ET

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The Tor Project offers an easy download to users, whose online actions cannot be monitored by law enforcement when they employ the program.

WASHINGTON - A non-profit company meant to help protect people from Internet surveillance is inadvertently helping child pornographers, drug dealers and criminals hide their actions online.

The Tor Project, Inc. offers a free download of the program that helps users go invisible online. The program is largely funded by the government, reports The Boston Globe. Tor's website lists its intended users as members of the military, journalists and law enforcement officers. The site also appeals to whistle-blowers.

But the advantages of anonymity also appeal to criminals who buy and sell illegal materials on the Web.

The secret online community is known as "darknet," according to federal authorities.

"It's free speech to the extreme," Chester Wisniewski, senior adviser at Burlington computer security company Sophos Inc., tells The Globe. "It's really tragic there are some sickos using this same technology for their purposes."

Tor's Executive Director Andrew Lewman says he has been approached by law enforcement officials whose investigations are stalled by Tor's technology. The program disables investigators' ability to identify suspected online criminals.

Lewman said his site can't be blamed for aiding crimes just as cell phone and computer manufacturers can't be held responsible for how their technology is used. He has refused law enforcement agencies' informal requests to create a way to identify Tor users.

Lewman has said lifting the veil of anonymity would defeat the purpose of the program.

"I'm not going to compromise Tor," Lewman tells The Globe. "'Good' is so relative around the world. I bet the Egyptian government didn't think their activists were good."

Tor's technology was originally designed in the 1990s with the U.S. Navy in mind, to protect government communications. But the technology is now used by criminals as well.

Finding the behavior online reprehensible, an online group who calls itself "Anonymous" released a video, warning child pornographers and drug traders using darknet that they would be shut down.

The U.S. State Department is a major contributor to the Tor Project's $1.3 million dollar annual budget, along with two other federal agencies, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the National Science Foundation. Government officials say the site is federally supported because it provides potentially life-saving online security in places like Iran and Syria.

WTOP's Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)