For several years now, the internet has played host to a parallel ecosystem – an overlay network of zones accessible only by users in the know with specific hardware or software configurations, special software, authorizations, or protocols.
This alternate or “dark” net (Darknet) has typically been used for the peer-to-peer file sharing of content and resources, beyond the restrictions of more formalized channels, or for the setting up of so-called “privacy networks” like Tor, which enable members to conduct their affairs without the scrutiny and governance of law enforcement or established authorities.
Having gained a reputation as the online haven for drug dealers, terrorists, people traffickers, cyber-criminals, child pornographers, and miscreants of all kinds, the Darknet might be assumed to have no merits for the law-abiding, whatsoever. But as with all things in life, there may be gray areas in the darkness.
Ambiguous Foundations of the Darknet
Ambiguity has surrounded the Darknet, pretty much since its inception. When mathematician Paul Syverson and his colleagues Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were tasked by the U.S. Naval Research Lab (NRL) with developing a way to make online communications as secure as possible, what they came up with in 1995 was to become a mixed blessing.
Conceptually, their intention was to provide an online mechanism for government agents, employees, or anyone in a sensitive position wishing to share intelligence without revealing their identity or location. Their practical solution was a networking method now known as Onion Routing, whereby online connections are re-routed via a layered series of random computers between their origin and the point of final destination.
This system evolved into Tor (an acronym for The Onion Router), a network designed not only to hide the identities and locations of those accessing a website, but also to allow websites the ability to mask the locations of the servers which host them. The creative team developed a system of “Hidden Services” sites with the domain suffix .onion – intended as a sort of refuge for government websites, which agents could visit without being traced under dire circumstances.
The project was largely funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, but with the public release of the Tor software in 2003, its range of use cases moved beyond the purely government sector. Despite its origins and government funding, Mathewson and Dingledine have kept the Tor software and community on a path of independent evolution, since its public release.
Darker Uses of the Darknet
Designed to be kept off the radar of mainstream search engines, the Darknet consists of people and websites that wish to remain anonymous. The Tor browser enables those in the know to find others in the hidden overlay network, while also having access to the resources of the mainstream or “Surface Web.”
Though the government-funded nonprofit organization (known as the Tor Project) which maintains the browser insists that only 3% of its usage is dedicated to darker purposes, this minority allegedly includes individuals and collectives which offer or are involved in a range of nefarious activities, including the likes of:
- Drug trafficking and peddling
- People trafficking and sexual slavery
- Extreme and child pornography
- Weapons trading and arms dealing
- Brokerage of contract killings
- Hacking for hire
- Organized crime and money laundering
- Hate speech and incitement
Busting the Silk Road
One of the big success stories of the Darknet’s dark economy was the Silk Road, a bitcoin-fueled platform for the illicit trade in narcotics, off-the-books pharmaceutical drugs, sundry items, and occasional weaponry. The site’s fortunes ran from its January 27th, 2011 official launch by founder Ross Ulbricht (operating under the pseudonym Altoid, but allegedly running the show as the Dread Pirate Roberts) until the culmination of an FBI operation which resulted in Ulbricht being sentenced to life in prison in May 2015, under the weight of numerous charges including money laundering and computer hacking.
Very soon after Ulbricht’s initial arrest and the shutdown of Silk Road in 2013, Silk Road 2.0 (a market largely dedicated to soft drugs, pharmaceutical powders, and pills) sprang up to take its place. Silk Road 2.0 was in turn surpassed by two other platforms – Agora (a platform for trading drugs and weapons), and Evolution (whose remit also included stolen credit-card, debit-card, and health-care information, guns, fake identification documents, and forged university diplomas). Others have been springing up and disappearing, ever since.
All of this speaks to an adaptability and entrepreneurial spirit which would, ironically, be admired in the mainstream commercial sector. But players on the other side of the equation have had to be quick on their feet in tackling the dark traders, as well.
Unconfirmed reports claim that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been actively attempting to “deanonymize” sections of the Darknet, since 2012. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense’s research and development wing DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has created a deep search engine called Memex, which enables online investigators to crawl the Darknet and Deep Web (online regions not discoverable by the major search engines), locating sites and storing data for further detailed analysis.
Technologies and services targeting the Darknet have been evolving in the private sector, as well. For instance, a Milan, Italy based software-security firm known as Hacking Team has allegedly been working with the American FBI. The organization also sells spyware and equipment to governments wishing to more closely monitor the Darknet as a hedge against criminals, activists and political dissenters.
Brighter Uses of the Darknet
This last point speaks to what might be considered the flip side of the dark/bright debate over uses of the Darknet. While not strictly in accordance with its initial brief of protecting the anonymity of government agents and workers online, the lack of visibility which the onion routing process affords its users enables individuals and organizations in political, ideological, and journalistic fields to escape the scrutiny and censure they might otherwise have to endure from restrictive governments or repressive societies.
So the Darknet may:
- Protect political activists or dissidents from censure or reprisals.
- Protect citizens from invasive government or law enforcement surveillance.
- Enable the sharing of content, ideas, and documents which might otherwise be unavailable through mainstream channels.
- Facilitate the breaking of sensitive news, or the “whistle-blowing” process for controversial developments.
- Enable citizens or workers to bypass restrictive firewall policies, censorship, and content-filtering mechanisms.
- Enable consumers some respite from geo-tracking, ad tracking, and targeting mechanisms.
There exist some formalized channels for positive use of the Darknet, also. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a digital rights group which promotes what it calls “surveillance resistance” by funding and supporting the Tor network. And The New Yorker runs a Tor Hidden Service known as Strongbox, which allows whistle-blowers to communicate with the magazine securely and anonymously.
An Ongoing Debate
Den of thieves, or refuge for the oppressed? The Darknet retains the ambiguous position of actually being both, simultaneously.
As we look to the future and efforts continue to infiltrate its passages and bring the Tor network’s resources under more formal bands of regulation and scrutiny, it’s as yet uncertain which side of the dark/bright spectrum will tip the balance, and win out in the end.
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