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What is the dark web?

Posted by: Jemma Puzey


Firstly, let’s distinguish between the dark web, the deep web and the surface web. The surface web is the portion of the internet that is readily accessible to everyone and searchable with standard search engines. It is estimated that less than 10% of the internet is surface web. The opposite of the surface web is the deep web, which simply refers to web pages that an online search engine cannot find because they are hidden beneath a paywall or are password-protected, for example banks employ parts of the deep web for online banking.The dark web is where the other 90% of the internet lurks. You can’t search the dark web using Google; in fact you need to download special software to access the dark web. The most common software is Tor, which stands for The Onion Router and so called because the information sent through this software into the dark web is subject to many layers of encryption. Tor avoids connecting the user directly with the website they want to visit. Instead, the information is sent out through a series of computers that have volunteered to act as “relay points”. As the information passes through each computer it removes a layer of the encryption. Each computer can only see what it’s instruction is e.g. pass the information onto the next point, until the final computer decrypts the information and reveals the content. By using this zigzagging path, the identity of the user is hidden and the IP address cannot be tracked. 

Downloading the software is the easy part, finding websites within the dark web is where it gets difficult. Tor hosts approximately 30,000 websites and due to the fluid nature of the dark web, addresses are liable to change so users need to know what they are looking for. Some websites such as Hiddenwiki try to retain a collection of dark web address so that users can find them more easily. Silk Road was the first dark web “marketplace” with illegal drugs making up 70% of it’s merchandise; it was shut down by the FBI in 2013, 3 years after its inception. However, it was re-launched as Silk Road 2.0 a month later.

Often associated with criminal activity, the dark web is a haven for nasty business and those who want to keep their activity anonymous. Terrorists use it to share intelligence and their plans, even using it to raise money with a live fund-raising site for ISIS recently discovered. It is an infamous marketplace for drugs, arms, child abuse images and hiring hitmen. Troels Oerting, a former cyber-crime chief has said “The Tor network hides criminals, even if that was not its intention. It’s very, very difficult for the police to penetrate so it’s risk-free crime.” However, Jake Applebaum from The Tor Project claims “anonymity creates crime so you hear about things like Silk Road and people say “oh its terrible that someone can do something illegal on the internet.” Well, welcome to the internet, it is a reflection of human society, where there is sometimes illegal behaviour.”

So, if a sanctuary for criminal activity, why was the dark web created in the first place? In the mid 1990s the US military needed a technology that allowed intelligence operatives to safely exchange information completely anonymously, so they created Tor. Part of the strategy was releasing Tor into the public domain so that there would be other people on the system, meaning it would be harder to separate the government’s messages from the general noise created by everyone else. After all, you can’t be anonymous if you’re the only one using the system.

However, there is a beneficial side to the dark web. It is a safe place for whistle blowers to leak information without fear of censorship or retribution. They are able to pass information onto journalists to release into the public domain. This was true in the case of Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor, who used the dark web to divulge classified information regarding the scale of the internet and phone surveillance carried out by US intelligence agencies. Further, it allows activists in repressive regimes to share information anonymously and speak to each other. It was instrumental in the story of Syrian born Reem Al Assil, who enlisted the help of Tor in the Syrian uprising to protect her from the country’s secret police, allowing her to deny having been involved in any anti-government activity. Bruce Schneier a computer security expert claims, “Internet anonymity is vital for anyone living in countries where you can be arrested, tortured and killed for the things you do online. This is why the US government was instrumental in developing the technology and why the US State Department continues to fund Tor.”

In 2014, David Cameron announced plans to attack the dark web and root out criminal activity. However the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology claims “there is a widespread agreement that banning online anonymity systems altogether is not seen as an acceptable policy option in the UK.” Further, there are larger technical challenges involved. And bear in mind that once something like this is attacked, people find other ways of gaining access and in doing so often create stronger, harder codes to break and block. Dr Joss Wright and Internet Researcher says “We should not shy away from the negative uses anymore than we should ignore the benefits. Preventing individuals from communicating without being tracked, watched, logged etc would be a huge blow to our society.”

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