The erosion of privacy and growth of censorship on the internet increasingly threaten freedom of expression in the digital age.
Information flows are becoming subject to pervasive surveillance and monitoring, making anonymity necessary.
The good news is that concurrent advances in the power of PCs have made it possible to develop peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies that facilitate user anonymity.
Freenet, which is a distributed information storage system, was developed as a means to address some of these anonymity concerns.
Freenet can trace its origins back to a project designer and developer Ian Clarke launched at the University of Edinburgh back in 1999.
Clarke, in collaboration with other researchers, designed a system to ensure anonymity on the internet, through storing encrypted content snippets distributed on users’ computers and connecting through intermediary computers that pass on content requests.
The computers cannot access information in the files, as is the case with internet routers. Freenet utilizes caching, strong encryption and does not rely on centralized structures. This anonymity tool has been under constant development since then.
How Does Freenet Work?
Freenet functions as a self-organizing P2P network that takes unused disk space across hundreds of thousands of computers to create a collaborative anonymity system.
In order to increase the network’s robustness and eliminate single failure points, the anonymity tool utilizes a completely decentralized architecture.
Given the fact that P2P environments are inherently unreliable and untrustworthy, Freenet was developed with the assumption that participants could fail without warning or even operate maliciously.
The anonymity tool, therefore, implements tactics to protect data integrity and prevent anonymity or privacy leaks while providing redundant data availability. Each Freenet participant runs a node that provides the network some storage space.
If a user seeks to add a new file, they send in-network insert message that contains the file. It is then assigned a globally unique identifier (GUID) that is location-independent, resulting in the file being stored on some set of nodes.
With this GUID anonymity tool, keys are calculated using secure hashes (content-hash keys and signed-subspace keys).
A file might be replicated on or migrate to other nodes during its lifetime. The main advantage of this storage method and the key difference between Freenet and other anonymity tools is that the data is available even when the publisher node is offline.
Another advantage is that no single node is responsible for huge data sets. Nodes that keep getting new data drop un-retrieved data if the allocated disk space is filled up. As such, un-retrieved data tends to become “forgotten” over time.
In order for a user to retrieve a file, they send a request message containing the GUID key.
When it reaches the nodes storing the file, the node passes information back to the request’s originator.
Data encryption and request relaying makes it difficult to ascertain which user inserted content into the network, who requested the content and where the content was stored.
This mode of operation ensures participants anonymity and eliminates content censorship. The node software contains a web interface through which users can access content on the network.
Freenet supports opennet and darknet connections. Peers are assigned automatically in the network’s opennet mode. The nodes with enabled opennet make the connections automatically.
These connections are easy to use but are less secure than darknet connections.
In darknet mode, users who know and trust each other can establish connections manually. They are more secure against malicious actors on the network, and the system ensures them complete anonymity.
How Freenet Differs from Tor
Although Tor and Freenet are both anonymity tools, they differ on various levels. The most notable difference is that Freenet is an inproxy network, while Tor is an outproxy network.
In outproxy networks, users can utilize anonymity platforms to access the clearnet as well as their hidden services. But with inproxy networks, anonymity is self-contained. This means that users cannot use them to access the clearnet.
Freenet has its own websites, messaging forums, email and file sharing services hosted within the network. Unlike Tor, users of the tool do not need a server to host content.
In addition, data stored on the network stays there indefinitely, even when the user stops using the anonymity tool. There is no way to delete data at will. Data can only be deleted if the users do not request it.
With Tor, data can be erased if the users choose to do so, and data does not stay on its network once a host goes offline.
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