New Darknet Wants To Match-Up Cypherpunks In Crypto Utopia

Cryptosphere is a new darknet now under development. A darknet is a private and/or anonymous network, sometimes using the public internet for connectivity. Silk Road, a marketplace for illegal drugs, is probably the most famous. You can’t use Cryptosphere yet, but eager hackers can take an early look at what’s done so far in Github.

Cryptosphere is inspired by two other peer-to-peer systems: Freenet and the late MojoNation.

MojoNation was a peer-to-peer network where members swapped resources in exchange for a digital currency called Mojo. The project was backed by a startup called Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow, which employed Bram Cohen, who went on to create BitTorrent, and Zooko Wilcox-O’Hearn, the creator of Tahoe-LAFS, a peer-to-peer storage system.

Freenet provides the ability to upload and download content completely anonymously (or so the developers say) through a distributed peer-to-peer network. To participate, you download a client/server program that stores a certain amount of encrypted data on your hard drive and makes it available to other Freenet users. You have two choices: you can connect only with friends and other trusted users, or you can choose to participate with the whole network.

It’s like Napster or BitTorrent, but you’re unable to tell what you’re storing. It could be a perfectly legal file, like a Linux distribution, or it could be something more sinister, like child pornography (more on that later). You may have only pieces of files. The Freenet application handles routing of requests through encryption keys, and can also use your computer as a relay between other machines in the network. If you want to download something, you can find files through public directories with encryption keys that enable you to locate and decrypt a file. When you download something you can’t tell where it’s coming from. This provides an extra layer of security and makes it hard to track down who’s hosting and downloading what. Freenet’s main disadvantage, other than being in the dark about what you’re sharing (which some may see as a strength) is that it’s really slow. Also, be warned though that even though Freenet has been around for 12 years now there’s never any guarantee that its security can’t be broken. It’s developed by humans, and humans make mistakes.

Cryptosphere tries to strike a balance between these two previous systems. Unlike MojoNation, Cryptosphere isn’t trying to create a digital currency. “The goal is to incentivize people to provide storage service by making that the way they buy the right to store other things on the network,” explains Tony Arcieri, the project’s lead developer. “In Freenet there’s no incentive to provide reliable service.”

Other than the barter element, the biggest difference between Cryptosphere and Freenet is that while with Freenet you don’t know who you’re file sharing with, unless you enable the friends-only mode, Cryptosphere makes this explicit so that you can barter.

“I think the main thing I’d like to try which is fairly novel is using a collaborative filtering algorithm (i.e. Amazon-style recommendations) to select optimal peers to perform exchanges with/barter with for storage space,” Arcieri explains. Sounds like a match making service for paranoid file swappers.

It’s an intriguing project, but not one without its difficulties. Freenet is noted for the amount of child pornography distributed through the system. Since Cryptosphere will encourage sharing with strangers based on how generous they are with bandwidth and storage, not what they are sharing or download, this could become just as much of a problem there. The encrypted nature of the system provides users with “plausible deniability” but that might not be good enough based on new laws in the U.K.. And legal issues aside, most people have an ethical issue with hosting child pornography, knowingly or not.

Arcieri says one way to deal with the problem may be to create an IP address block list, which would have to be provided by law enforcement. This would enable users to block known distributors of child pornography. But it’s not a fool proof way to stop distribution of kiddie porn or other objectionable material.

But really the value of darknets is that can provide people a medium to exchange information in places where it’s dangerous to do so. For this usecase the crypto needs to be bullet proof to avoid the sort of public embarrassment ( not to mention the potential danger to actual users) that tools like Hackstack and Cryptocat have faced. Also, “plausible deniablity” might not be enough cover under a malevolent dictatorship.

By the way, if you’re still depressed about how people are using Freenet, here’s an interesting take on this situation: a Hacker News commenter lamented that the tool will likely end up being used, much as Freenet before it, for distributing child pornography. But another commenter has a more optimistic take: the prevalence of child porn on Freenet is actually an indicator of freedom. Dig:

Child pornography producers and consumers are similarly persecuted, though clearly with much more sound reasons.

At least in western countries, there aren’t a lot of instances of repressed communication that need to be conducted across a channel like this — especially few legitimate ones. This is not to say that such a system isn’t useful; just that I believe the fact they’re so full of child pornography and the like is actually, in a roundabout way, an indicator of a healthy society.

An interesting case, though I think in western nations signal-to-noise is a bigger problem than state censorship (consider the ratio of mentions of ocean acidification to mentions of the Kardashians).

Photo by m thierry / CC