If you work within the cyberpsychology or computer technology field, the darknet will be a phrase that you are familiar with. However, for many outside the field – including the majority of internet users – it is an unknown concept. Therefore I thought I would write this blog as a short introduction to the darknet – especially as I may refer to it in my future blog posts.
So what is the darknet, what is it used for, who uses it and why don’t people know about it?
What is it and how does it work?
The darknet is part of a hidden or ‘parallel’ internet that lurks underneath the internet that we all know and love. We could be forgiven for thinking that when we search Google we are searching all the websites out there but in actually fact we are just scratching the surface. Beneath our surface internet there is a much deeper internet. Bergman (2001) goes so far as to guess that the deep net is around 400 to 550 times larger than the surface web. The deep net consists of all websites that cannot be indexed by traditional search engines, this can be for completely innocent reasons for example technical issues which prevent search engine crawlers (also referred to as spiders or bots) from indexing the page – therefore the webpage will never show up in general search engine results such as on Google. However, hidden within this deep net lies the darknet, a section of the internet that consists of a series of networks designed to allow users to use the internet and share digital content completely anonymously. The darknet cannot be found on the normal surface internet, to access the darknet you need to install dedicated software onto your computer. One of the most well-known software programmes for the darknet is Tor which aims to keep users anonymous by bouncing its network through a series of random pathways made up of different servers in order to make it very difficult to detect or trace where the data originated from. Tor’s website describes this as follows:
“Tor helps to reduce the risks of both simple and sophisticated traffic analysis by distributing your transactions over several places on the Internet, so no single point can link you to your destination. The idea is similar to using a twisty, hard-to-follow route in order to throw off somebody who is tailing you — and then periodically erasing your footprints. Instead of taking a direct route from source to destination, data packets on the Tor network take a random pathway through several relays that cover your tracks so no observer at any single point can tell where the data came from or where it’s going.
To create a private network pathway with Tor, the user’s software or client incrementally builds a circuit of encrypted connections through relays on the network. The circuit is extended one hop at a time, and each relay along the way knows only which relay gave it data and which relay it is giving data to. No individual relay ever knows the complete path that a data packet has taken. The client negotiates a separate set of encryption keys for each hop along the circuit to ensure that each hop can’t trace these connections as they pass through.”
Who uses it and why?
The darknet, or more specifically Tor, was originally designed to be used by the U.S Navy to allow the sending of top-secret government messages. Today, Tor has a wide range of users including the secret service and law enforcement officers who wish to investigate illegal sites without leaving a trace (e.g., investigations into terrorism). It is also used by journalists, whistleblowers and activists.
Tor, and other darknet software providers, are also trying to market their services as family friendly alternatives to the normal web. This may include those who wish to avoid common internet traffic analysis and tracking, i.e., the information that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) collect about you when you use the internet. This information is often sold to marketers to enable them to target their advertising – this is the mechanism behind the tailored adverts you see on social media sites and search engines, e.g., if you have recently searched for wedding related items online you will often see that further websites you visit will have sponsored adverts showing wedding related content. Many users do not agree with internet tracking and may wish to use an anonymous service for this reason. Tor may also be used by those who wish to speak out about social change or wish to encourage political reform. Tor is even used by anonymous bloggers who wish to avoid negative consequences which may result from the information they post online.
However, due to its anonymity, the darknet is also often used by criminals for illegal activity such as the sharing of child porn and the dealing of drugs, weapons and prostitutes. According to this article, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) estimates that at least 1/3rd of darknet users are using it for criminal activity. Other services available through the darknet include professional money laundering services, fake ID dealers, professional hackers, sellers of hacked PayPal accounts and stolen credit cards, contract killers and places to learn how to perfect your chosen criminal ‘craft’.
One of the most notorious sites on the darknet is Silk Road, an online black marketplace that operates similarly to Amazon and eBay. Whereas on Amazon you may buy your favourite book or music album, on Silk Road you can purchase illegal drugs such as Heroin, LSD and cocaine, and up until 2012 you could also purchase weapons (although apparently this has since shut down due to lack of interest). Just like Amazon and eBay, users rate each other using a feedback system to ensure the best buyers and sellers are recognised within the ‘community’. Purchases are made using BitCoin – a digital currency that operates as an alternative to conventional currencies and which can be received and sent anonymously. The drugs are then, believe it or not, mailed via the standard postal service!
Is it illegal to use the darknet?
It is not illegal to use the darknet or Tor, in fact you can even donate to Tor through Amazon!
However it goes without saying that it is illegal to use the darknet for illegal activity, whether this is the viewing and sharing of illegal material or the purchase of illegal substances and services! The police and FBI are prolific users of the darknet and have previously warned users that they are regularly developing new mechanisms to crack down on illegal activity on the darknet.
There have already been criminal convictions of darknet users – the most recent conviction has just hit the headlines today:
But how can the darknet be legal?
The darknet and Tor is legal as the only service that Tor markets is the ability to use the internet anonymously. Tor is not marketing itself as encouraging the use of this anonymity for criminal reasons, therefore the service itself is not doing anything illegal. However, it is very controversial whether the service should be allowed to exist considering the type of behaviour that it is fostering in some users. Without the darknet it would be much harder for professional child abuse rings to exist and certainly harder for them to grow their membership at such an alarming rate. However, as of now, there is currently no legislation to prohibit the use of the darknet.
So there you have it, a very quick whistle-stop tour of the darknet – an interesting, if somewhat disturbing topic!