Dark Matters – What is the dark web?

If you’re in the neighbourhood and are lucky enough to find me at home (i.e. when I’m not out training for some physical endurance challenge or helping at the local soup kitchen) I would be delighted to give you a short tour of my shed.

It’s quite a small and modest affair – not like the male play-palaces of trendier folk – but it serves the purpose of storing my special machines perfectly adequately. Mind yourself as you go in…

If we stand for a moment and allow our eyes to adjust to the gloom you can see there are a few silvery spiders’ webs stretched between the gleaming metal. I would enjoy spending time discussing their intricate beauty and the miracle of their construction but there’s something even more intriguing I would like you to take a look at.

Just there – deep in the corner at the back – can you see it? It’s almost invisible but if you crouch down a little you should be able to make it out… an arachnid’s domicile made from the finest strands of pure graphite, casting a shadow blacker than the darkness itself.

That, my friend, is the Dark Web. Or more accurately it’s my personal portal into it.

The Dark Web is a multi-faceted dichotomy. Most people will be aware of its existence but few could explain what it’s for or how to use it any more than they could with the fourth side of a cheese grater or six of the eight attachments you get with a modern domestic vacuum cleaner.

It is the internet but at the same time it’s a mysterious realm far outside most people’s experience and, much to the excitement of the media, it has two heads – one good and one totally evil.

I’d like, if I may, to unshroud this technology a little because I believe it’s something you should have an opinion on, even if only to appear better educated next time you’re in the pub or visiting your Gran.

Deeper And Down

The first lesson on the road to understanding the Dark Web is to learn about the Deep Web.

Dark Web! Deep Web! I can sense your rising tension – but don’t worry. It’s pretty simple. At least it would be if certain elements of the media didn’t insist on using the terms incorrectly.

The Deep Web refers to the areas of the World Wide Web that cannot be indexed by Google… or for the sake of completeness, by Bing!, Bong!, Yahoo! and WhoopDeDo! – or whatever the other search engines are called.

There’s nothing necessarily mysterious, clandestine or dodgy about much of the Deep Web – there are all kinds of resources that cannot or should not be accessed by search engines, including areas of web sites that require a log in, such as internet banking. Or sites that feature pictures of kittens.

The Dark Web

The Dark Web is a sub-set of the Deep Web – it’s made up of those web resources that not only can’t be reached via normal search engines, but additionally require special software and technologies to access them. It’s used by people and organisations who wish to conceal their activities.

The core technology behind it was invented and is funded by the US Navy. Mathematician Paul Sylverson and his two colleagues presented the first full release of their Onion Router (also known as Tor software) at a conference for digital security professionals in 2004. This was a relatively public unveiling for a military security tool. Not only that, but they made the software Open Source – allowing anyone to use it and even develop it further should they wish.

They Must Be Crazy!

Why on earth did they do this? It may seem bonkers, but they were actually rather smart. If you wear a bright, day-glow orange shirt you will get noticed. If you give everyone in the high street one too you immediately become lost in the crowd. It’s the same principle behind the Tor software. It enables the authorities to keep an eye on the activities of suspects and undesirables without drawing attention to themselves.

How does it work? In simple terms, traffic to and from sites in the Dark Web are routed between hundreds of network nodes. At each step a layer of encryption is added so the journey becomes a huge game of Chinese Whispers.  On the way back the layers are peeled away as if from an onion – hence the name.

Since each node knows only of its neighbours it makes it difficult, even impossible, to track the source of the traffic from the destination. In this way you can visit a web site without anyone knowing who you are or where you came from. You will remain an angel in the eyes of the world.

That’s about it. Using this simple concept you can visit and interact with a web site in complete(ish) anonymity. If you’re of an entrepreneurial bent you can take advantage of this to sell your illicit wares, whether it be arms, drugs, extreme pornography or bomb recipes.

Smooth and Skulky

The headline grabber that brought the Dark Web to the public eye was a market place called ‘Silk Road’ where, I am told, one could buy or sell anything from stolen credit card details to ‘unlicensed pharmaceuticals’. It was launched in 2011 and defined the template that all other market places followed: Tor for anonymity of buyer and seller plus payment via the electronic currency, Bitcoin.

Unfortunately, for the founder of the site, it became just that little bit too popular and was shut down by the US DEA and Department of Justice in 2013. The founder was arrested.

So the Dark Web is evil?

Probably… but not entirely. The technology is also used by people in countries where freedom of expression is supressed. For example, pro-democracy activists in China and Iran have used it to publicise human rights issues. In fact, it is reported that Vlad Putin himself is so worried about it that he has offered a reward of 4 million roubles to anyone who can ‘crack’ Tor and break its security.

And then there’s the original purpose – to help the authorities fight crime by monitoring undetected the activities of terrorists and criminals. The US government still funds its development to the tune of $2M a year. Some might say their motives are simply for the benefit of society – some might argue it’s pure Big Brother.

Either way, it seems that the Dark Web is here to stay. However, there is one small twist left in this tale.

It’s all nonsense!

Well… the ‘how’ bit is there or thereabouts true but the ‘who’, ‘why’, ‘how many’ and the ‘oh my god this is the end of civilisation as we know it’ bits may not be a fair reflection of reality.

Earlier this year, Wired Magazine published an article entitled “The Dark Web as You Know It Is a Myth”, where they claimed that:

  • all the vice accessible via the Dark Web is also available on the regular internet – easily and in vastly larger quantities
  • the Dark Web is not a significant source for terrorist fundraising or recruitment
  • there are no more than 30,000 web sites on the Dark Web compared to billions of sites on the visible web
  • it’s used on a regular basis by only a few thousand people worldwide
  • rather than being an impenetrable haven for law breakers and low life, the police and law enforcement agencies can and regularly do make successful arrests of those using the Dark Web for illicit gain

While this may be a little too far down one extremity of the storm-in-a-teacup to end-of-the-world continuum, it raises some interesting points. Not least of all, if we are to believe some of the hype then, while you are reading this, everyone else you know is ordering hard drugs and Kalashnikovs off the Dark Web.

Does the ‘normal’, visible internet really represent only the 4% at the tip of an iceberg? Perhaps, but if it does it’s almost certainly the entire Deep Web that accounts for the rest and not just the Dark Web. It certainly is not as big as we are sometimes led to believe.

So is the Dark Web the personification of evil; the scourge of society; the cesspit of all that is wrong with the human condition? Or is it in fact the last bastion of free speech in an ever more Orwellian world, which paradoxically enables law enforcement authorities to track and infiltrate the criminal elements of society for the greater good?

As always, we at Siteset do have the definitive answer but unfortunately I have to leave you now and tend to my special machines.

Don’t forget my invite.

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