NEW YORK -- You just don't hear this every day: "I invented the 'dark web.'"
For Paul Syverson, co-creator of the Tor web browser, the claim is true.
Syverson stood in front of journalists and tech professionals Thursday, making this declaration in an airy room tucked away on the second floor of Manhattan's Museum of Jewish Heritage. Sunlight poured in through the windows. Outside, tour boats swished through the Hudson River.
This was an odd setting for an "Inside the Dark Web" conference, with talk about cybercrime and anonymized "onion routing" on the Internet. But any daydreaming about the nice weather was halted toward the end of Syverson's keynote, when he mentioned an emerging threat to people's online privacy.
"Medical identity theft is poised to take over as the primary form of identity theft," Syverson said.
It's already a big problem. More than 155 million Americans have potentially had their medical data exposed in the last six years alone, the Brookings Institution says. That's largely because hospitals and other organizations aren't doing their part to secure patients' data. But individuals are increasingly using online health care services, which means they're responsible in part for making sure their connections are secure.
Tor can help with that. The service's downloadable software routes online traffic in a way that helps users stay anonymous when navigating the Internet. It's thus helped create a "dark web," a network of sites that are inaccessible via Google Search, say.
Syverson spent much of his talk explaining the technology that makes Tor work, but he mentioned identity theft to illustrate why the browser is increasingly relevant to anyone with an online presence.
People who know how to use the service can avoid being tracked by bad actors, protect themselves from government surveillance and so on. Syverson compares Tor to encryption -- a once controversial security measure that's commonplace today: Roughly 15 years ago, before cyberattacks and massive data dumps seemed like weekly occurrences, people tended to be skeptical about the necessity of encrypting information online. Many people today are similarly dubious about the need for a service like Tor, Syverson said.
“Back then, if you were encrypting your website, people were like, ‘Oh, what do you have to hide?’ And now it’s recognized as a fundamental enabler of eCommerce,” he added.
Syverson referenced a health care NGO that is developing a site on the dark web for "anonymous online drug tests, anonymous online health services, anonymous online chat, anonymous research questionnaires for health." He wouldn't name it because the project is still in development, but the takeaway was clear: In the era of mass online communication, anonymous browsing can be responsible browsing. You obviously wouldn't want a hacker to access your medical records, after all.
Of course, anonymous browsing and the dark web are infamous for enabling crime, as well.
"There are bad guys that use this, too, just like there are bad guys that use cell phones, hammers and lots of other things," Syverson said.
Asked by The Huffington Post whether Tor and the dark web should be more accessible for the average person, he offered a shrug.
"It's not hard at all. It's drag and drop, click 'download' -- and it runs on your computer," Syverson said.
If you're curious, try it for yourself.