You may have not heard of it, or if you have, you heard the horror stories.
The recent closure of two illegal online marketplaces for selling contraband has put the dark web back in the spotlight.
For most who have never or would never use it, it may seem obvious to simply call for the entire thing to be shut down. But the dark web is not only impossible to shut down, it has very real value, albeit that it is a haven for criminal activity too.
What is it?
There are three parts of the web that are relevant to this explanation. The visible web, the deep web and the dark web. Sometimes they get different names and are divided into more sections but these are the basic blocks.
The Visible Web Any site that is public and indexed by a search engine is part of the visible or surface web. There are over 14 billion pages indexed and publicly available and it is growing all the time.
When you talk about the web you typically mean the visible web.
The Deep Web You may see some sites refer to the deep and dark web as the same thing, but the deep web is effectively any page that is not indexed or that requires a direct link to access or needs a password. Most Facebook posts and pictures are considered the deep web as are company records and any cloud documents that are not specifically public. Estimates vary about its size, because it is not indexed, but generally it is believed to be much bigger than the visible web and growing even faster as almost everything we do now gets stored online.
The Dark Web It requires an anonymous connection to access with the most common means to do so using software called The Onion Router or simply Tor as its acronym. The name comes from how traffic is sent across the web. When a site on the visible web is accessed by a user, a request is sent to access the page using a public IP address and the response sent back to your IP address. The request is sent via the internet and can be intercepted and read. As both the origin and destination is included in the message, you can be tracked online.
The Tor browser prevents that by encrypting the request and sending it via multiple destinations with only the next one in the sequence able to be unencrypted by the receiving router which then forwards it to the next address.
Imagine a letter with an address placed and sealed inside another letter with a different address. If someone were to open the letter they could see where the letter came from and who it is addressed to, but they will not know if the sender is the original sender or if the next destination is the final one. All traffic is sent this way across public servers but is in effect completely anonymous. To compromise it would require so much effort, that it is hardly worth it.
Who would create such a seemingly evil tool you might wonder - the US Navy. The internet was developed by the US Department of Defence initially as a way to share information more efficiently among their forces. The principles of routing traffic through multiple routers was developed to allow the navy to send its messages through public servers securely.
The code was released to the public a year after its launch in part because the more people use it the less likely the traffic generated by the military will be detected in the mix. While it is free for anyone to use, it continues to receive funding by the US Government, although there are likely some politicians who may not like that.
There have been illegal marketplaces like Silk Road in the past, but the shutdown of Alphabay suggests it was far larger. Ongoing police work across countries is the best defence with the Dutch run Hansa being run for over a month by Dutch police in order to track who was using the site. The shutdown of Alphabay was coordinated to allow records of those that used the Alphabay marketplace who then flocked to Hansa to also be tracked before shutting down the Hansa site too. Despite the significant bust, there are and will be others to take their place.
There are other real benefits to the dark web which balance the potential downside.
For those operating in oppressive countries or who wish to more securely report on crimes and corruption to the press or humanitarian organisations, the dark web offers the safety to do so. Many large publications maintain secure digital drop boxes that allow people to provide evidence that can’t be traced back to them.
For many the attempts by many governments and even corporations to monitor your every move online is reason enough to choose to opt for using the tools to communicate and browse sites anonymously.
A fair warning though that the dark web, while providing anonymity, is not without risk for those who wish to use it. The odds of scams and potential malware being offered as innocuous or desirable content is very real with those affected even less likely to report their misfortune as authorities are likely to be suspicious of their motives as much as they may be sympathetic for their their loss.
If you do wish to learn more, and you should, visit the Tor project website and first become familiar with the project and what it can and can’t do.