Technology

ProPublica Finds New Home On Internet's Dark Frontier

By / Jan 8, 2016 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The nonprofit news site ProPublica this week found a new way to distribute its content: through the “dark web,” using the secure Tor platform. As a result, the Pulitzer-winning publication is now the first major news organization to have a front page on a fully anonymous part of the internet.

You may not be on the “dark web,” but one nonprofit publication is ready to stake its claim.

ProPublica, an independent journalism organization that has won a variety of awards since its 2007 launch—including two Pulitzer Prizes—this week revealed that it had released a version of its website that works on Tor, the encrypted protocol that is commonly used to ensure website anonymity. (The Tor protocol is itself run by a nonprofit organization.)

That makes it the first general news website to publish on the dark web, which has traditionally been associated with illicit activity due to its strong focus on security. According to ProPublica developer Mike Tigas, who helped launch the platform, the news site is doing this in the interest of offering more options to its readers—and making it so readers can access more-secure reading options without ISPs knowing what’s being read.

“Everyone should have the ability to decide what types of metadata they leave behind,” Tigas told Wired this week. “We don’t want anyone to know that you came to us or what you read.”

Traditionally, news outlets that have used Tor for secure access have primarily used it in the context of acquiring information securely. Along with ProPublica, publications such as The New Yorker and The Guardian have, over the past few years, made available a service called SecureDrop, which allows for the dissemination of sensitive material to media outlets.

While the idea of creating a secure outlet for merely reading online content may seem a bit over the top for the average user, Tigas noted that some of ProPublica’s own content presents some risk for some readers—for example, this piece of data journalism that tracks whether China is blocking its citizens from accessing certain online news sites.

While most users might be safe using the standard URL inside of the Tor browser, there are limits to how secure a reader might be if using a standard web address. Admittedly, you have to really want to read ProPublica on Tor if you type in its address for the protocol—http://propub3r6espa33w.onion/, which is necessarily complex in order to allow for encrypted access—but in cases where such security is essential or desired, it could come in handy. (By the way, that URL won’t work in your normal browser; you have to download a specialized client provided by Tor.)

ProPublica’s move could also help to draw interest in the dark web beyond its traditional affiliations. A handful of sites offer secure access to users via the Tor platform, most notably Facebook, but by creating general access sites accessible through the network, it could help burnish the reputation of the platform.

“Personally I hope other people see that there are uses for hidden services that aren’t just hosting illegal sites,” Tigas added in his comments to Wired. “Having good examples of sites like ProPublica and SecureDrop using hidden services shows that these things aren’t just for criminals.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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