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6/15/2009
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Researchers Build Anonymous, Browser-Based 'Darknet'

Black Hat USA presentation will demonstrate how the latest browser technology makes underground, private Internet communities simpler to form, more secretive

A pair of researchers has discovered a way to use modern browsers to more easily build darknets -- those underground, private Internet communities where users can share content and ideas securely and anonymously.

Billy Hoffman, manager for HP Security Labs at HP Software, and Matt Wood, senior security researcher in HP's Web Security Research Group, will demonstrate a proof-of-concept for Veiled, a new type of darknet, at the Black Hat USA conference in Las Vegas next month. Darknets, themselves, are nothing new; networks like Tor, FreeNet, and Gnutella are well-established. The HP researchers say Veiled is the same idea, only much simpler: It doesn't require any software to participate, just an HTML 5-based browser. "We've implemented a simple, new darknet in the browser," Wood says. "There are no supporting [software] programs."

Unlike its predecessors, Veiled doesn't require much technical know-how to join, either. "The coolest thing about this is it lowers the barrier to entry to a darknet," Hoffman says. "You could put some very interesting applications on top of it. It could be a way to do secure whistle-blowing, [for example]. When you have something decentralized like this, no one can control or stop it." No one can take it down, either, he adds, all of which makes it more approachable for a wider community of legitimate users.

Darknets can also be abused by the bad guys as a way to cover their tracks, but Hoffman and Wood say they see this as more of an opportunity for adding legitimate and mainstream uses of darknets, such as anonymous suggestion boxes or other ways for users to express themselves anonymously without their IP addresses potentially giving them away. "Students are getting reprimanded at school because of their Facebook postings," perhaps criticizing something about school, Hoffman says. "They're being punished for free speech. Where can you freely express yourself without fear of consequences? This could be an interesting app."

"The point of our research is not to give bad guys a tool for nefarious use, but to get security researchers discussing and talking about the new concept of browser-based darknets," he says.

Veiled is basically a "zero footprint" network, in which groups can rapidly form and disappear without a trace. It connects the user's HTML 5-based browser to a single PHP file, which downloads some JavaScript code into the browser. Pieces of the file are spread among the members of the Veiled darknet. It's not peer-to-peer, but rather a chain of "repeaters" of the PHP file, the researchers say.

"It's a file on a Web server, but I can also host one on my Website, for example, and we can join those two files together," Wood says. "It's very distributed."

The researchers are building encryption into the file distribution network as a way for users to remain anonymous and communicate securely.

Hoffman says he and Wood mainly want to show that building a browser-based Darknet is possible. And they don't consider Veiled a replacement for existing darknets. "We don't think this is the best solution...Our message is that the technical barriers to these secure anonymity networks are not that high," he says. "We are trying to build an infrastructure for this type of communication and file storage to occur, and allow others to decide how they should architect it."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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