By Kabir Sharma:
The dark web first came into mainstream knowledge with the FBI’s crackdown of the online drug marketplace Silk Road in 2013. There is lots of news about it once again: the much debated trial and life sentence given to Ross Ulbricht (Dread Pirate Roberts, founder of Silk Road) a few months ago; Europol starting a training program to catch dark web cybercriminals; rising interest in the encryption following Edward Snowden’s revelations on worldwide online mass surveillance; and Wikileaks once again accepting anonymous leaks on their dark web portal, after a four year long gap.
The dark web refers to web content that exists on ‘dark nets’, networks requiring specific software to access. One such is the Tor (The Onion Router) network, which jumbles up IP addresses by randomly relaying the traffic between users worldwide. So if you, sitting in India, are viewing a website hosted in the UK, it could appear someone from New Zealand was viewing content from South Africa. The dark web forms a very small part of the Deep Web, which is all the content not indexed by search engines. This is estimated to be 96% of the web’s information, though it is largely just password protected databases like those of various journals and scientific organizations, private albums, intranets, etc.
Though it isn’t easy to study activity on the dark web, a 2014 study found the most requested type of content on Tor related to its darkest activity: child abuse, in the forms of child pornography and pedophilia. There have been arguments to explain why this could be a false result, including the fact that many of those visitors would have been child porn investigators; however the fact that it allows child abusers to work with impunity, is something even the staunchest dark web supporters find hard to counter. Still, it is important to note that the Internet Watch Foundation found out of the total 31,266 URLs containing child porn images online, only 51 were hosted on the dark web.
Other illicit things such as drugs, weapons and explosives, services of hackers and hit men, fake IDs and bank notes, are readily available on the dark web as well. However, the dark web’s contribution to such activities web-wide is again small. Websites selling drugs and other ‘dark web’ items are also far more on the regular web. The Tor Project claims only 1.5 percent of overall traffic on its anonymous network is to do with hidden sites, the rest of the users use Tor just to hide their regular browsing habits.
Surveillance, Whistleblowers And The Dark Web
The debate between those resolutely for and against mass surveillance by governments, fought over concerns of privacy versus security is an ongoing one, and one that can only be resolved if adequate legal checks and balances are put in place. For example, the passing of the Freedom Act in the U.S. this year, responding to the uproar that followed Snowden’s revelations on the NSA (National Security Agency)’s PRISM project has been a significant step forward. Snowden had revealed to what level the NSA was spying on millions of non-suspects, collecting material to potentially squelch dissent or intimidate those fighting to make corporate and state power more accountable.
In India, neither the Congress nor the BJP governments took parliamentary sanction for the Central Monitoring System (our version of PRISM) being enforced across the country this year. Present laws governing tapping, the Indian Telegraph Act and IT Act, were made before the concept of mass surveillance, and are not up to the task of providing the checks required.
In the meantime, the dark web has been providing an anonymous space to whistleblowers and political discussion forums alike. And they maintain a good presence on its pages, even in countries like China.
The impact of mass surveillance on individual expression and dissent is still unclear. One study found 75% writers from developed, democratic and ‘free-er’ countries to be self censoring their publicly made opinions. However, another found 60% respondents feeling surveillance would not change their tendency to publicly criticise their governments; with the majority of those who felt it would, saying it would spur them on to criticize more. The same survey however, found only 17% people supportive of mass surveillance covering all internet users worldwide.
While all of this is debated, adapting to the times, the ‘Snowden effect‘ is seeing an increasing number of people moving to methods to encrypt their browsing and communication through the dark web or otherwise. And big corporations like Facebook, well ahead of the curve, are already on their way to monetizing this. Facebook’s new service claiming to provide NSA-proof email encryption, and earlier move to become available through a Tor URL, though difficult to take seriously, are steps into an expanding market. And similarly, Facebook and others are holding on to their existing IM markets by standing up to governments wanting to disallow heavily encrypted services such as WhatsApp; all the while championing user privacy.