Fears about constant monitoring of your online activity could lead many to the deep web, traditionally the home of cyber-criminals, drug dealers and paedophiles.

Edward Snowden Tor Project
Edward Snowden pictures in his Hong Kong hotel room with stickers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project. (Credit: Twitter/Salon)

It is hardly a surprise that Edward Snowden is worried about who is watching him. He is at the centre of one of the biggest whistleblower scandals to ever hit the US intelligence community and makes actions like lining the door of his hotel room with pillows and draping a red hoodie over his head and laptop every time he enters a password online, seem normal.

However, following the leak of slides which purport to show that the National Security Agency (NSA) has huge powers to monitor phone calls and online activity through services like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, it is more than just Snowden who are beginning to get paranoid.

As people get panicked, they begin to wonder what they can do to protect themselves from these unseen forces as they browse the web.

A seemingly innocuous sticker pictures on one of Edward Snowden's four laptops while he was in his hotel room in Hong Kong, could highlight one of the ways in which people worried about their online privacy could avoid detection altogether.

The sticker is of the Tor Project logo and could indicate how Snowden had anonymously communicated with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the story last week.

Tor (originally short for The Onion Router) is software and a network which allows users to carry out activities online without anyone being able to identify you or where you are located - even governments and law enforcement agencies cannot penetrate the encryption.

Haven of criminality

Until recently the Tor network had been the preserve of hackers, geeks, conspiracy theorists, criminals, drug dealers and paedophiles. Its inherent quality of anonymity has seen it grow in popularity in recent years as we carry out more and more of our lives online, and while it is ertainly used by journalists, the military, law enforcement and activists, it is still a haven of criminality for the most part.

This is the deep web, the dark internet.

It is a place populated with the type of people you don't really want to meet down a dark alley in the middle of the night. But that's OK, because you don't know who they are, and more importantly they don't know who you are or where you live.

The network of sites you access on the deep web cannot be reached by Google's robotic crawlers and are therefore not indexed in its search results. This is why searching for the deep web's most infamous site, Silk Road, won't work in a normal web browser.

Silk Road

Silk Road is a one-stop site for buying drugs online. Thanks to the anonymity of Tor, the buyers and sellers are protected from prosecution and with a few clicks you can buy pretty much whatever drug you want, and have it posted to you..

However finding the actual numerical web address for Silk Road is not that difficult (it took under a minute), and it means that within minutes anyone could go online and anonymously order Class A drugs and get them delivered to their front door, safe in the knowledge the authorities can do nothing about it.

The deep web is also a popular hang-out for cyber-criminals who use anonymous forums to advertise and sell their exploit kits and botnets, again safe in the knowledge that their transactions cannot be seen or their identities uncovered by law enforcement agencies.

But is this the solution for general web users?

In the wake of the Prism scandal, some people in US - and subsequently in the UK - will have begun to question everything they do online and how much information they are sharing on services like Facebook, Google and Twitter.

While the threat from cyber-criminals stealing your data remains constant - and growing rapidly - it seems somehow more sinister when your own government is the one monitoring your every Facebook Like and Instagram upload.

For most people, the thought of disconnecting ompletely from friends on Facebook; not sending emails via Gmail or not being able to talk to loved-ones on Skype would be unthinkable, such is the prevalence of these services.

While Tor is attempting to change people's view of it, attempting to cultivate a more family-friendly reputation and saying it is now a viable, mainstream alternative for many people who want online anonymity, for most of us it is not the solution - at least not in its current form.

But there is another option.

A new social network called Cayova promises to give "control back to the user by placing privacy and choice at the heart of the experience." However is it is not the social network aspect of the product which will appeal to those seeking privacy, but the ability to block anyone tracking your online life.

The Cayova add-on for your browser allows you to select which social networks or tracking services can monitor your online activity at any time - but this is only one a start, and people will want this type of functionality built into all services they use online.

Simon Bessant, Chief Operations Officer with Cayova says the leak about the NSA's Prism programme is "likely to make people more careful about what they are willing to share in a public forum and take measures to protect their privacy on line. People may even decide to stop using social media all together unless they can gain better control over their privacy settings."

The big problem is that people already have so much information out there. People's digital profiles in some cases begin before they are born, with images of ultrasounds put on Facebook without any consent from the person involved.

It means that before you have a chance to decide what you do and don't want to share online, your parents and family will already have decided for you.

Give back control

Bessant says it's virtually impossible to reclaim you anonymity once you put something out there: "For most people if they've shared something then it's out there, it's almost impossible to withdraw all your data from the internet, particularly if you've shared it on a social network where other people have then shared it too."

While Cayova can't promise to keep you anonymous while online, it does promise to give you back control: "We believe everyone deserves the right to keep things private or just share with a select group without having to give up social media all together."

As privacy fears grow, social networks where you are anonymous to everyone except those you want to connect with will no doubt become more popular, but as we learn more about the power which those in charge have, the more we are likely to look into the deep web, and maybe take a dip.