What if Internet users could access a “hidden Internet” where they could surf without fear of detection or identification?  That would certainly have a lot of appeal to some users who detest the government’s snooping in general, but it would also tend to attract those who have more concrete reasons to avoid being identified and/or tracked in their on-line activities.  Why hassle with slower speeds and excess infrastructure unless security is absolutely critical to your activities, after all?  That is exactly what has happened with Tor, according to an article by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review from almost two weeks ago but which has gotten more traction today after Drudge picked it up:

Now after revelations about widespread U.S. government surveillance of social media and cellphone records, Egyptians are able to lecture Americans about Internet privacy. What once seemed unnecessary to most Americans might make sense, even to people not doing anything illegal or even embarrassing.

More than 80,000 people in the United States log onto the Tor network to access the Web each day, according to its metrics . Edward Snowden, a former employee of a U.S. government contractor who leaked information about U.S. intelligence agency snooping, had a Tor sticker on his laptop.

Tor protects users by encrypting their Internet traffic and routing it through servers around the world, making the information appear to come from somewhere else. About a half-million people a day use the network worldwide, with the United States and Italy topping the list. But it has been popular in Iran, Syria and other places where governments try censoring the Web.

Because it provides anonymity, Tor also has become a haven for computer criminals dealing in drugs, child pornography, illegal guns and even murder, if advertisements for hit men can be believed. Anarchists, skinheads and hackers use the network for discussion and recruitment.

Officials at the Massachusetts nonprofit that runs Tor said it plays an important role in places where governments seek to control the Web. “Tor continues to defeat censorship and allow citizens access to the open Internet,” executive director Andrew Lewman told the Tribune-Review.

Who created this government-free haven of communication?  Three guesses:

Tor started out as a project of the Naval Research Laboratory in the early 2000s for military communications and command and control even in hostile areas. Originally known as The Onion Router, the name derives from the metaphor of peeling away layers of encryption at each server so that no one eavesdropping on the communication can identify the user, the content and the end destination.

Anyone can download the Tor software for free and surf the web anonymously from a computer or a cellphone. Service providers can create hidden websites that end in .onion — rather than .com or .org. Users can access them only on the network. Because Tor sends information through other nodes, traffic on it moves slower than on the rest of the Web.

There are other programs that allow users to hide an email address, encrypt messages or operate through proxy servers to hide their identity, but none is as sophisticated or widely used as Tor, cyber experts told the Trib.

Ahem.  I don’t mean to get too conspiratorial, but it’s just a little difficult to believe that the government created an Internet network it can’t surveil, especially after finding out about the NSA programs and the lengths the agency goes to track potential terrorist activity on line.  After all, the “early 2000s” was a time when organized terrorism and its on-line communication was very much on the mind of the US government.  It’s also when Congress passed the PATRIOT Act (October 2001, to be exact) allowing for much more broad surveillance on communications. This sounds a little like …

… and if it’s not — what were we thinking in allowing it to get out into the open?  The Trib-Review notes that it is now used by freedom activists in Egypt who want to avoid detection by the Morsi government, which should tell us something about the nature of post-Mubarak conditions. But if this is truly impenetrable by the government that created it, it raises a lot of questions about why we provided this platform and then started snooping on open communications instead.

Criminals don’t entirely get a carte blanche on Tor, though.  Old-fashioned undercover police work can succeed on the hidden Internet, too:

Michael Evron was visiting Bogota, Colombia, last year when he was arrested and charged with running an illegal drug network across 50 states and 34 countries.

U.S. prosecutors say Evron, 43, of Argentina was the computer whiz behind The Farmer’s Market, a website on the hidden Tor network that specialized in marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms and other illegal drugs. The site, they say, raked in more than $1 million over a 22-month period. …

Evron, a computer programmer, graduated from New York University and once worked for Wall Street financial titan Goldman Sachs. After his arrest, Evron helped authorities shut down the website and allowed his extradition to Los Angeles, where he awaits trial.

He was one of 15 people arrested, including one in the Netherlands, whom authorities allege were tied to the website. One unidentified person in Pittsburgh was arrested in the raid but released without being charged, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman said.

An undercover DEA agent bought more than 30 grams of LSD online for $2,160 on The Farmer’s Market, posing as one of the site’s 3,000 customers.

“Traffickers of illegal drugs may attempt to operate online in secrecy, utilizing special networks, anonymizers and covert currency transactions,” DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said. “But none of that is beyond our reach. … DEA is very proactive in keeping abreast of ever-evolving technological advancements.”

Yes, I suspect that more than a few people may make the mistake of thinking that “untraceable” communications means absolute security. Someone has to collect the cash and deliver the goods, and just as in real life, those are vulnerabilities for hidden criminal enterprises.