Shut up about The Hidden Wiki

This post first appeared on my old blog in November 2019. It is preserved, but maybe not updated, here.

The focus/organization of this post is poor and it does not contain much technical information. You might want to skip this one.

I spent about an hour searching the web for the phrase "the hidden wiki" and collected all the resulting websites I could find that called themselves that or some slight variation of that. I searched using DuckDuckGo, Ahamia, something called OnionLand Search, and something called Tor66*.

After deduplication, I found 48 websites, of which 46 were up right now. 40 sites were onion services. 40 onion services that you can easily find that all call themselves the hidden wiki. When someone asks "hey, how do I find cool onion services?" and you respond with "look up the hidden wiki," which one are you talking about? Does it even matter? Do you even care that they will probably type "the hidden wiki" into the URL bar of Tor Browser, which defaults to searching with DuckDuckGo, which doesn't even index onion services, so they're going to visit something like Is that really what you were intending?

Let's assume for a little bit that when you say "the hidden wiki," you're talking about a specific one and you have the means to easily pull it up again. It has also somehow established itself as trustworthy: it doesn't link to scams, doesn't serve you malicious JavaScript, etc. Whatever. How the hell is anyone supposed to find it? The more-secure web comprised of onion services (colloquially and stupidly referred to as "the deep web") does not yet have good search engines**. There's no good reputation tracking systems. The ones that exist look easily gameable or malicious themselves. Good results don't just rise to the top. Imposters don't get crowded out. No one knows which "hidden wiki" you're talking about. People lazily asking for links to interesting onion services are annoying. People lazily throwing out "use the hidden wiki" and other low-effort comments in response are just as bad.

*If you recognize either of the latter two names, I am not making any claim regarding the authenticity of the links I have for them; the first two are the legitimate sites that go by those names.

**See rant at the end of this post.

Why so many?

I think it's all a bunch of people trying to piggyback off the popularity of the name "The Hidden Wiki" in order to drive traffic to their site. No doubt some of these people are acting with good intentions. Perhaps they're carefully curating the links they allow onto their site. Maybe they're simply providing a copy of this "valuable" information for a sense of pride. Whatever. But I would bet money that many of these people have more malicious intentions. For example: they've changed links such that they point to scams that financially benefit them.

Attack ... or mirrors?

While searching for these sites, I stumbled upon 10s of mirrors of the exact same site (I collected ~10 but was looking at a wall of ~50). I am familiar with onion service operators trying to increase the resiliency of their sites by running multiple onion addresses in parallel that all point to the same site*. But I also suspect some operators will create tons of copies of their site and submit them to search engines so that it is more likely someone will stumble upon their site.

This person running 10s of mirrors of their site ... are they a good person simply mirroring their site to try to make it more reachable? Is this a bad person that has filled their site called "the hidden wiki" with a links to scams that they operate? Is this just an amateur doing their best to attract traffic to their hobby project that they believe is a good-faith effort of indexing safe, legitimate onion services? How would you know?

*I'm not saying this will work. Do it naively and you won't accomplish anything.

Victims of success

Say you start a new website and host it at an onion service. You call it something unique so it won't be confused with anything else (e.g. you don't call your drug market "The Silk Road" and you don't call your link index "The Hidden Wiki"). Your share your site and perhaps advertise it a bit. People start using it and you've reached some measurable level of success.

Due to the problems expressed thus far in this post, prepare yourself for people to start impersonating you. I think you should especially expect this if your site is financially successful or has the potential to influence where people spend money.

This has happened recently. In the last year, a new index sprung up that primarily lists currently working links for "known-good" drug markets. It's popular with Redditors from what I've seen. People consider it trustworthy. But search for it on DuckDuckGo, and the first result is not the original one. In fact, the first 3 are all imposters, and the original is the 4th result.

This is a hard, scientifically interesting problem

Smart people are actually trying to tackle problems like this. Here are some things you might find interesting.

A rant

I'm jaded. Put on your thick skin because this might hurt.

If suddenly you think making an onion service index or search engine sounds like a fun little project: please don't. Please please please don't. It won't be very good, and that's only partly because there isn't much to find. Something like 90% of the links you try will be dead (§ 6.2). When you do find a working site, you're going to ignore robots.txt and get stuck slowly downloading all 30 translations of a website with 100 of thousands of links that aren't interesting to anybody (cough the person crawling my gitea server). You're going to dump all this crap into a database, enable full text search, and present search results to people with no discernible order. If you add some sort of submission and/or ranking system, it's going to be easily gameable. You think you implemented something that couldn't be gamed, but it can. You thought you would attract a community of people to help moderate submissions, but none will come. After all this hard work you'll finally have something you can call "My First Search Engine" that you run for a month before you get bored and move on. During that time all it ever accomplished was abusively hammering the Tor HSDirs with lookups for onion services that don't exist and forcing relays to perform the most expensive crypto that they ever do in order to keep building circuits for you.

I've seen it so many times before. Please find a better fun project. It's cool that you're excited about Tor. Put that energy into something else. Hop on Tor's IRC channel #tor. Get involved. Run a relay. Close a bug. Write a backpacking blog as an onion service. Host an IRC server or MUD as an onion service. SSH into your home using an onion service. Make some IOT devices talk to each other via onion services. Anything is more productive than yet another crappy search engine.

I'm trying to speak from my experience here. I have a hard time finishing projects. Some random person said in a comment (not even directed at me) that constantly moving on to new projects is a sign of immaturity. While I'm not sure I agree, it does make me think. I work on an idea because I think it will be fun, and once it stops being fun I stop working on it. But what I think makes Yet Another Onion Service Search Engine different in my mind is that when it stops being fun for you and you move on, you didn't just spend your own time. You also put more load on the Tor network, and the Tor network is not getting any bigger these days. People depend on it, and I don't think there's as much capacity to spare as you might be led to believe from Tor Metrics.

I think people are going to disagree with me or at least disagree with the way I've expressed my thoughts in this section. But I guess ... I guess maybe a blog that's 100% technical 100% of the time isn't nearly as good. This at least felt good to finally write down.

Matt Traudt (pastly)

Tech, Pets, and Vettes