We think we know the internet. We think we can use it extensively and comprehensively, be that keeping up with our friends on Facebook, buying goods on Amazon, or searching the trenches of Google for quotes for that essay due tomorrow. But there’s much more to the web than the average user is knows about.
By ‘more’, we don’t mean a few hidden forums here and there. ‘More’ is a collection of web pages several magnitudes larger than the standard internet, which everyday internet browsers like Chrome and Firefox can’t access. So what on earth is this ‘more’?
It refers to The Dark Web, a collection of publicly visible websites that hide the IP addresses of their host servers. This makes these websites accessible to everyone, but also makes it very difficult to figure out where they’re hosted – or by whom. Most Dark Web sites use the anonymity software Tor, but a standard Google search won’t work here. The sites simply aren’t indexed under a search engine; they use a different access protocol to normal sites. Layers of encryption are used, giving it the name The Onion Router. When a request is sent, the original data is encrypted (including the location) and sent through multiple randomly selected Tor relays. These relays could be anywhere in the world and no one person knows where all the servers are. Each time a relay is given a request, it decrypts one layer to reveal the next location in the array and sends it to its next hop in the network.
Tor is built for anonymity, meaning it is perfect for ‘whistle-blowers’ or activists, who use it to reveal information in a secure and encrypted manner. Some of these people have even managed to break the ‘Great Firewall of China’, the firewall imposed upon the Chinese population by their communist government. One of the first high-profile Dark Web sites was the Tor hidden service WikiLeaks, founded in 2006 by Julian Assange to accept leaks from anonymous sources. The idea of WikiLeaks has since been adapted into a tool called SecureDrop, a piece of software that integrates with Tor hidden services to allow any news organisation to receive anonymous submissions. Even the likes of Facebook have launched Dark Web sites aimed at better catering to users visiting using Tor in order to evade surveillance and censorship.
However, there are far more sinister uses for the ‘darker side’ of the internet. Dark Web Markets such as Silk Road are anonymous online marketplaces hosted on the Tor network. Again, inaccessible through normal web browsers, these markets generally sell illegal items such as drugs, stolen credit card information, child pornography, firearms, etc., as well as some legal items. They are run by anonymous individuals from around the world and are used by people worldwide, both of which use Bitcoins to carry out the transactions between vendor and buyer.
Bitcoins are a form of digital currency, created and held electronically. No one government, country or bank controls the online currency. Bitcoins aren’t printed, like dollars or euros – they’re produced by lots of people running computers all around the world, using software that solves mathematical problems in a process called ‘mining’. It’s the first example of a growing category of money known as cryptocurrency.
Regardless of the above, just how completely the Tor network can evade the highly resourced law enforcement and intelligence agencies remains unresolved. Only earlier this month, dozens of Tor hidden services were seized in a coordinated action by the FBI and Europol, known as Operation Onymous. This operation saw the seizure of three of the six most popular drug markets on the Dark Web; Silk Road 2.0, Cloud9 and Hydra were all appropriated by the American Federal Agencies in an act to address the online aspect of the War on Drugs.
Governments worldwide are doing their best to seize any illegal online marketplaces that come to their attention, however with the growing awareness and technical knowledge of today’s generations, it seems that the Dark Web is becoming increasingly popular. Most of the Dark Web content is normal and legitimate, but for various reasons cannot be easily accessed. However, it seems that it’s usually the illegal activity that gains the most attention. Some argue that the security and anonymity provided within the Dark Web is important and something to be cherished, not taken advantage of. In an age where most of our daily activities are now monitored in one way or another, the prospect of anonymity in our online activities will undoubtedly become increasingly attractive.
Alice Hargreaves Jones Science Editor