Should You Use a VPN with Tor? (Well, No.)

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This seems to be a very frequently asked question, and on many sites, people will tell you that you should use a VPN with Tor, for “extra protection.”

Based on my research, however, I disagree – and this seems to be an unpopular opinion. One reference I’d like to cite is a blog post by Matt Traudt, a.k.a. system33-, who is someone I respect with regard to Tor. The post in question is VPN + Tor: Not Necessarily a Net Gain.

One of the points he brings up here is the following:

Tor is trustless, a VPN is trusted. Users don’t have to trust every Tor relay that they use in order to stay safe with Tor. As long as the right ones aren’t compromised, working together, or otherwise malicious, the user stays protected.

This is the main problem with insisting on combining Tor and a VPN. VPNs can keep logs of your activity online (though some claim not to), whereas Tor does not.

However, using a VPN can hide your Tor usage from your ISP, especially if said ISP is suspicious of Tor.

The Tin Hat, on their post Tor And VPN – Using Both for Added Security, also makes the point that “Where this setup fails is at hiding your traffic from a malicious Tor exit node. Because the traffic goes through the VPN, and then to the Tor network, exit nodes can still watch your traffic unencrypted.”

My preference, personally, is to use a Linux distribution with Tor, like Tails or Qubes, or for the more advanced, Arch Linux or Manjaro Linux. These, of course, take time to learn and won’t do everything for you, but they are designed for security. While this doesn’t mean they are vulnerability-free, they can improve your protection, particularly if you understand their ins and outs.

Don’t get me wrong – Unix-like OS’s are not invincible – see Sophos: Don’t believe these four myths about Linux security, but depending on the situation, it’s preferable to using an OS like Windows.

Oddly enough, I haven’t “contracted” any malware via the dark web – at least not to my knowledge. This has happened more often on the clearnet, ironically. Maybe it’s because I don’t download mysterious files or install programs that I find randomly on networks like Tor.

I’m paranoid that way.

What about you, readers? What OS’s do you prefer to use (specifically in combination with Tor, I2P, Freenet, etc.)?

In the meantime, enjoy your dark web adventures, my friends – and please research any VPN or other “privacy” software before trusting it blindly.

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How to Access the Dark Web with I2P!

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What?  You mean there’s another way to access the dark web?  YES!

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating – Tor is not the only way to access the so-called “dark web,” but it seems to be the most popular at the moment.  In fact, there are many ways to do so.  Oddly enough, many of the trending articles that discuss the dark web act as if Tor is the only way to reach it.

“Dark web” is essentially a metaphor for all the sites built on top of encrypted networks that require special software, configurations or permissions to access.  I must clarify this, however – Tor, I2P, and Freenet are completely separate networks.

On previous posts I’ve mentioned Freenet, but there are other options too, and I2P is one of them.  The reason that it probably doesn’t have the same reputation as Tor, or even Freenet for that matter, is that it’s a bit more complex to learn and use.  (At least that’s my guess).

So, downloading I2P is the easy part; just go to Download – I2P and install it!  The site offers packages for the following OS’s:

  • Windows
  • Mac OS X
  • GNU/Linux/BSD/Solaris
  • Debian/Ubuntu
  • Android

The tricky part, as you may have guessed, is the post-install work!  Courtesy of their homepage, I’ll offer the steps:

I2P_post-install-work

After running the installer on Windows, simply click on the “Start I2P” button which will bring up the router console, which has further instructions.

On Unix-like systems, I2P can be started as a service using the “i2prouter” script, located in the directory you selected for I2P. Changing to that directory in a console and issuing “sh i2prouter status” should tell you the router’s status. The arguments “start”, “stop” and “restart” control the service. The router console can be accessed at its usual location. For users on OpenSolaris and other systems for which the wrapper (i2psvc) is not supported, start the router with “sh runplain.sh” instead.

When installing for the first time, please remember to adjust your NAT/firewall if you can, bearing in mind the Internet-facing ports I2P uses, described here among other ports. If you have successfully opened your port to inbound TCP, also enable inbound TCP on the configuration page.

Also, please review and adjust the bandwidth settings on the configuration page, as the default settings of 96 KBps down / 40 KBps up are fairly slow.

If you want to reach eepsites via your browser, have a look on the browser proxy setup page for an easy howto.

Did that read like a foreign language to you?  Congratulations!  It did to me too, at first.  It may make more sense once you actually get into the process of setting it up…or not.

At first, I’ll admit I was somewhat intimidated by I2P, given that you couldn’t just install it and run it without a lot of configuration and forehand knowledge, but now that I’m more educated in that area, it’s kind of fun (believe it or not).  Or maybe it’s because I’m a nerd, I don’t know…

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If you find the homepage’s instructions a bit too technical, there are a number of other sites that “translate” the setup tutorial into a simple guide. Deepdotweb featured one of these guides in this post: Full guide: How to access I2P Sites & Use TheMarketplace.i2p

The Tin Hat also offers a great tutorial here: How To Use I2P | I2P Tutorial & Setup Guide.  Plus, they explain how the network works in layman’s terms!

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Screenshot credit: thetinhat.com

Once you have the network up and running and you open it in a browser (e.g. Firefox), you should see a page like this:

I2P_router_console_0.7.7

Credit: 2009 Wikimedia Commons

As it says, that’s the I2P Router Console, and from that page you can configure just about everything about your connection, how much bandwidth you’re using, and what IP address your “identity” appears to be (not unlike Tor, actually)!

Let the Right One In

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I had to include at least one creepy image.

Now, I have to confess that the part where I got held up was when I tried to access actual I2P sites (known as “eepsites”).  I knew I was connected to the network, so that wasn’t the problem.

According to the official I2P FAQ, under the question explaining what eepsites are:

An eepsite is a website that is hosted anonymously – you can access it by setting your web browser’s HTTP proxy to use the web proxy (typically it listens on localhost port 4444), and browsing to the site.

I did this, but I was still unable to access a number of the eepsites (or at least the featured ones on the router console).  Therefore, my thought was that the sites themselves were down.

Either that, or my firewall settings were preventing me from accessing the sites – I plan on modifying those and giving this another try.  Of note: eepsites also tend to go down often (not unlike .onion sites), so that could also be the problem.

But Wait…There’s More!

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Like its darknet cousin Freenet, I2P offers several main features:

Email/Messaging: I2P has a few different messaging services.  The main ones are a built-in email application and I2P-Bote, a secure messaging platform somewhat akin to Freenet’s FMS (Freenet Messaging System) application.

I2P-Bote is a P2P email service; there is no central server that stores your personal data. Email messages are stored in encrypted form on the computers of other I2P-Bote users, which is how it differs in its structure from standard email services.  No one with the ability to read your emails actually stores them on their servers.

If you check out the link above, it breaks down many of the security features of I2P-Bote, including its encryption method(s), and anonymity components.

I2P-Bote, as opposed to standard email services like Gmail or Outlook, uses cryptographic keys as destinations (i.e. randomly generated numbers and letters.)

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This end-to-end encryption is the default with I2P-Bote.  Beyond that, I2P-Bote also sanitizes email headers, taking out any unimportant information, and encrypts what’s left (e.g. the subject line).

I don’t know about you folks, but I find that very reassuring!

IRC (Internet Relay Chat): Some of you are probably already familiar with IRC – it’s been around since the internet’s early days (1988, believe it or not)!  The difference with I2P is that it has an IRC service that allows users to chat anonymously.  Similar services exist on Tor, by the way.  I have yet to use the chat service, but I plan on doing so in the future (and perhaps writing a separate post about it).  According to The Tin Hat’s how-to guide:

“Often controversial topics are talked about in these channels, but nobody is afraid of offering what may be a very valid, but unpopular opinion, pushing you to explore new ideas from new perspectives.”

And I can’t help but be reminded of an episode of Numbers while reading that line where they said this:

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Uhh…no it isn’t.  But I digress.  If you do end up using I2P’s IRC, The Tin Hat recommends the chat rooms #salt and #i2p-chat, which you can connect to by setting your IRC client (such as X-Chat) to 127.0.0.1 on port 6668.  If you already have experience with this, feel free to give me some feedback on how it went!

Torrents: Oh my God, you can torrent over I2P?  Yes – in fact, some would say that gives it an advantage over Tor, which strongly advises against torrenting over their network.

I2P offers The Postman Tracker and I2PSnark.  The former is a lot like The Pirate Bay, and the latter is very similar to µTorrent.  Again, I have yet to try out this feature, but according to my research, the torrenting feature only provides more cover-traffic, which actually improves your anonymity (as opposed to Tor)!

I2P also gives the user an advantage in that they can use it as a proxy for clearnet torrents, like BitTorrent or µTorrent.  That way you’re less likely to get some ominous letter from the RIAA, or have others users spying on your torrents.  It’s not 100% foolproof, but I’d say it’s smarter.  

Beyond that, there is an I2P plugin for the Vuze torrent client called I2P Helper; if you intend to use I2P primarily for torrenting, then it works very well in this context.  I2P Helper allows you to download torrents from both the clearnet and the dark web simultaneously.  To boot, you can configure Vuze to use I2P by itself, or an already running external I2P router.

One of the positive things about using I2P for torrenting is that there is very little child pornography or other questionable material on the torrent trackers (despite claims to the contrary).  Rather, there are quite a few sci-fi books, programming books, leaked government documents, movies, and music.

Its downside, however, is speed, which on average is about 30KBps (compared to roughly 1-2 MB/s on most other torrenting sites).  The trade-off, of course, is the anonymity factor.  You’re much less likely to get discovered and sued by angry record labels and movie studios if you’re using I2P, as opposed to their “cousins” on the clearnet.  So the choice is yours.

Give Me Links!  Give Me Links!

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All right, you asked for it!  I haven’t vetted any of these links, so enter at your own risk. These links are courtesy of DCJTech.info: DarkWeb Link List.  I have to admit, they’re much easier to remember than most .onion addresses, aren’t they?

Directory (I2P)

File-Sharing and Torrents

Gaming

Messaging

Miscellaneous I2P Sites

OutProxies

Search Engines (I2P)

Shopping (I2P)

Social

Is that enough links to get you started?  Well, I hope you have fun checking them out.

As for me,  I do hope to explore I2P more in the near future; it seems perfectly suited to nerds like me!

With that…it’s off to the darknet again…