An interesting culmination of factors has thrust privacy/anonymity tools such as TOR and the Freenet Project into the public consciousness. In the wake of high-profile disclosures from Edward Snowden and Wikileaks regarding government surveillance, and public debacles such as the fall of Silk Road have put TOR and other anonymous networks in the spotlight. These tools are now at the center of a new wave of privacy rights awareness. Here, we are going to compare and contrast two of the most popular means available to people who wish to protect their privacy when online, TOR vs The Freenet Project.
Normal Web Browsing
Anytime you open your favorite web browser and enter an address, you are basically sending a message to that website to send back the contents of its page to your browser so that you can view it. This message can wind up at several routers along the way which look at the source (your IP) and destination (the site you’re looking for) on the packet and pass it along the chain until it arrives at the destination. Consequently, each router along the way will know who you are and what site you are trying to navigate to. To see this in action for yourself, you can access your Windows command line and type: tracert www.website.com then hit enter. Mac users just need to open Terminal and type: traceroute www.website.com then hit enter. The result will astound you as you witness how many routers your request stops at on its way to the site.
TOR, which stands for The Onion Router, is software that enables the user to mask their identity while browsing the web and access hidden services. On loading a web page, the TOR browser wraps your identity in multiple layers of alternate identities, then bounces the request through the network of routers along the way to the destination. Each router along the way only sees one of these random sources/destinations, obscuring who actually sent the packet and where it will eventually wind up. As a result, anyone trying to identify you as your packet makes its way through the web will only be able to see an alias that doesn’t persist past that particular node.
The Freenet is a tool that allows users to create their own hidden networks with other trusted users. These hidden networks are only visible to other users in the group and cannot be accessed by an outside observer. By definition, these exclusive networks are not connected to the rest of the internet, so Freenet doesn’t allow users to browse outside that network. Instead of using the regular routers you saw when executing the tracert/traceroute command, each of the trusted users in the network allocate parts of their hard drives to be encrypted and function as the routers for that group, which forms a bubble internet that’s just for that group and contains only the content they are sharing together.
Neither TOR nor the Freenet offer protection when downloading content over the web. For instance, the downloaded content may be able to connect to the web and reveal your identity or location. Such content includes PDF documents and word processor documents. Both of these anonymizing technologies strongly recommend that you refrain from downloading such content while using their services.
Both TOR and Freenet are available for free. Users just need to download the respective software and install it on their computers. Additionally, updates are usually released on a regular basis, and it is generally a good idea to install them in order to experience a heightened anonymity level as threats to anonymity are identified and fixed by the developers.
Both of these anonymity services also offer cross-platform support. You can use TOR on Windows, Android, Linux, and even OS X. Freenet offers the same level of cross-platform compatibility, which makes it just as accessible to users on these computing platforms.
TOR is a lot more popular than Freenet, even though the latter is older by two years after being launched for the first time in 2000. Most users of darknet services prefer the TOR network, since it can connect to all of the hidden services on the deepnet. In fact, most people who have heard of darknet services know only of TOR. The fact that TOR tries to anonymize all web services rather than creating a system where it offers its own safe browsing services like Freenet does also makes it more useful for anonymous web browsing.
TOR is a proxy service, although it also offers ‘hidden services’ that consist of anonymous web servers. As a proxy service, TOR lets you access the general web, but anonymously. Freenet is something different entirely. Unlike TOR, Freenet is a contained anonymity service. So, while you will be able to use Google, Facebook and other popular services available in the general web while using TOR, you will not have access to these services when using the Freenet. Still, Freenet has websites, forums, chat, email, and even file sharing sites all of which are anonymously held within Freenet as long as your part of that network of trusted users.
In some ways, Freenet is safer than TOR. For instance, TOR uses exit nodes that are the points where your packet finally reveals the true destination and source in order for you to view the web page. These exit nodes are the target of agencies looking to crack your identity. Freenet, however, uses distributed server technology. In other words, Freenet only uses the hard drives of the trusted network, which is inaccessible and unknown to anyone outside that network. This means that the Freenet network cannot be taken down by shutting down any one specific server or node.
Although both TOR and Freenet are used to protect privacy and anonymity on the internet, they do so in fundamentally different ways. Think of TOR as a disguise that you wear when browsing either the clearnet or deepweb, whereas the Freenet is more like a private party where only the trusted guests know who each other are.