Darknet – a light in the dark, or a place to avoid?

Vivekanand Salunke is the Regional Associate Director of Strategy of Carat APAC.

5 – 7 minute read


The DARKNET, by virtue of its name and also how you access it sounds like a murky world where bad things happen.  It sounds like something the Imperial Forces from Star Wars would have invented for their evil purposes. Yes, there are those illegitimate elements, such as sites for illegal trading, the infamous Silk Road drug exchange, and sadly even sites related to human tracking and child pornography rings have been thankfully busted. In reality 95% of the activity is a force for positive, such as NY Times site dedicated to anonymous whilst blowing to combat corruption etc.

Most of us don’t know about this unexplored, unknown side of internet. I have been on darknet during my university days hosting and accessing our study material, projects and even sharing computer games.

A while back I stumbled upon an article about Target (retail giant) been hacked and the customer credit card details appeared on darknet or sold in black market. The hackers gleaned through the customer names, credit and debit card numbers, expiration dates, and three-digit security codes from customers, data that can then be burned onto counterfeit cards and sold on the darknet typically for $20 to $45 apiece.

This is when I started to think and explore more about this topic. Darknet is an overlay network that can be accessed only with specific software, configurations, or authorization. Jamie Bartlett (journalist and tech blogger) nicely summarized the harsh reality of Darknet,

“The dark net is a world of power and freedom: of expression, of creativity, of information, of ideas. Power and freedom endow our creative and our destructive faculties. The dark net magnifies both, making it easier to explore every desire, to act on every dark impulse, to indulge every neurosis”

The dark net sits at the deepest layer of the World Wide Web which is split in to three layers; the top layer is the surface web which is what we have access to using Chrome or Safari, the second layer is the ‘Deep Web’ which are those sites which cannot be searched using a search engine. This doesn’t mean that these sites are suspicious. The deepest layer is called Darknet. In short we can say they are the different parts of the World Wide Web (WWW) where websites have different access rights. Darknet is the darker side of the web while Surface web is the clearer side. Yes, there are a lot of things which we don’t know.

Did you know that only about 4% of internet is accessible through search engines like Google, Bing or Baidu and remaining 96% of web contents only accessible with special tools and software – browsers and other protocol beyond direct links or credentials? Let’s have a glimpse of the rest of the web.

Ironically, darknet was initially used for anonymous communications within the Military, to keep messages encrypted and secret. The Darknet platform is designed to be invisible to any ordinary browser and you need specially designed browsers like TOR, I2P etc.

The darknet has often been portrayed in Hollywood movies as the murky realm where the baddies do bad things such as Hacking, drug and arms dealing, illegal access to webcams, and general espionage and subterfuge. In some instances this is true. There are also incidences of the shoe being on the other foot, as detailed in the recent documentary film Zero Days by Alex Gibney. The film details how the dark net was used by the secret services of the US and Israeli governments to (illegally?) bring down Iran’s supposedly peaceful nuclear power programme.

In reality a lot of people do benefit from the relative secrecy in darknet. The obvious use cases are for journalists and nonconformists to communicate with each other or to share their opinions without censorship. It is filled with activists’ websites, anonymous stock traders, and information databases for journalists, political chat rooms, instant messaging services, artist platforms, as well as the WikiLeaks portal where whistleblowers can submit information anonymously.

Having accessed (not through my work laptop) the darknet with some trepidation and poked around I found the following sites that re-enforces the positive forces.

A safe place: Like Quora, the dark web offers opportunities for individuals to share their personal stories. On some sites, survivors of abuse can discuss their experiences, name their aggressors, or console their peers who would otherwise feel uncomfortable talking about their experiences.

Shared experiences: Some countries subjugate their citizens on an arbitrary basis, including sexuality or religion. The dark web offers opportunities for people to form communities in a less extensively policed forum, where they can share experiences.

Access to information: Access to books can also be restricted for a variety of factors, and the dark web offers plenty of opportunities to read books that may either be doctored or entirely prohibited in the analog world. Have you read the original Grimm’s Household Tales (more often known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales)? They are not in many bookstores or libraries, but are available on the dark web. For billions of people, access through the open web is restricted, leaving only one option

The darknet is becoming increasingly more popular as evidenced in the rapidly increasing traffic numbers and related TOR downloads across the globe (TOR is the access point for entering the darknet). The following site provides interesting stats by country related to TOR.

https://metrics.torproject.org/userstats-relay-country.html

The stigma often attached to the darknet is starting to lift and in my own experience the darknet can be used to gain valuable insight into subcultures and trends. In fact I recently put a proposal together to dredge (crawl) the darknet for consumer insight for a well-known insurance company.

Whether the darknet surfaces as a morally acceptable place to gain access to valuable information remains to be seen. We do believe more and more users will try to be invisible using darknet – Keeping in mind the trend towards people wanting more data privacy more users will switch to TOR or equivalent browsers to hide their identity. In some countries, accessing certain internet platforms is illegal for some segments of society. This is visible by the fact that Tor users in UAE has increased exponentially.

In coming years, governments will be tasked with drafting and implementing better cyber laws that detail what kind of encryption and privacy tools can be used, by whom, and for what purposes. We should expect the same results from darknet, which in turn will pose its own set of social questions, including about how much we value our right to privacy, from the individual level to the organisational level.

Many governmental organisations are also taking action against these infamous and illegal marketplaces found on the darknet. Every shutdown spawns dozens of other work arounds. The anonymity in the supply chain is their strength.

For those curious about the various going’s on in the darknet but not wanting to actually enter it, there is a news blog accessible through the surface web which provides daily news updates related to all things darknet (https://darkwebnews.com).

Suffice to say, the darknet is difficult to pin down in terms of providing a definite “is it good” or “is it bad”. In many ways the darknet is a place that reflects the best and worst of our human traits and imagination, where good and evil co-exist.