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The Hidden World of the Dark Web

Nearly a decade after its inception, the ‘dark web’ remains a mystery to the vast majority of online users. Inaccessible via traditional search engines, this sinister shadowland of the World Wide Web provides anonymous access to a mindboggling menu of illegal goods and services.

From its humble beginning hosting Silk Road-the first online black market to sell illegal drugs, the dark web blossomed into a massive network of illicit sites dealing in weapons, child pornography, political secrets and even professionals for hire including hackers, prostitutes, spies, terrorists, and assassins. The dark web guarantees anonymous negotiations and untraceable payments via Bitcoin.

It was never intended for that purpose.

In the late 1990s, two US Department of Defense research organizations pursued efforts to develop an anonymous and encrypted network designed to protect confidential communications from US spies. This secret network would not be known or accessible to normal Internet surfers. Its original purpose was never actually fulfilled but it transformed into something entirely different.

In comes the Tor network, which is short for "The Onion Router," because of the multiple layers of encryption that protect access to the information. Tor lives on the edge of the internet and serves as the core technology of the dark web, which is a collection of hidden websites that cannot be accessed through a normal browser and not featured by regular search engines like Google. The Tor browser is needed to gain access to that shadowy section of the internet where privacy is vital.

For people living under repressive governments that block much of the internet or punish those who oppose them, the dark web is a lifeline, providing access to information and protection from persecution. In freer societies, it can be an important reporting and communication tool that protects people from retaliation or conviction in the workplace or in the community.

It can also provide privacy and anonymity for those who are suspicious of how companies and governments track, use, and possibly profit from their private data. Several organizations today have a secret website on Tor, including almost every major newspaper, Facebook, and even intelligence organizations such as the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This is due to the fact that a Tor website provides an absolute guarantee of privacy and non-interference from outside sources.

There’s also material that you wouldn’t be able to find on the public web, such as links to full-text editions of hard-to-find books, collections of political news from mainstream websites and mind-blowing conspiracy theory sites that will leave you questioning whether your best friend is an alien in human skin suit.  You can conduct discussions about current events anonymously on Intel Exchange. There are several whistleblower sites, including a dark web version of Wikileaks. Pirate Bay, a BitTorrent site that that law enforcement officials have repeatedly shut down, is alive and well on the dark web. 

The unfortunate truth about the dark web is that it not only offers extreme privacy and protection against scrutiny by governments, it also enables an expanding underground market that can be used by cunning criminals for drugs trafficking, identity theft, child pornography, and other illegal products or services. The privacy and anonymity that protects against dictators and the use of targeted advertising make the dark web a facilitator for crime. There are websites that promote the writing of neo-Nazis, racists, and other radical groups.

The combination of dark web services and cryptocurrencies has sparked a crime boom. Ten years ago, a mysterious coding expert (with a special skill in password hacking) known as Satoshi Nakamoto developed the world's first currency and payment platform that is not controlled by a national government: Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that enables two parties to conduct a trusted transaction without knowing each other’s identity. It was originally intended to be a corner of exchange for the tech community, Bitcoin became the main mode of payment in 2011 for drug dealers who transacted on the Silk Road on the dark web. Over the last eight years, the blend of an encoded network, unseen from most of the world and transactions that use a currency that is nearly impossible for law enforcement agencies to track, has culminated in a large market for dangerous products and services.

In 2015, researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid of King's College, London studied the content of 2,723 sites on the dark web over period of five weeks and found that 57% contained illegal material. Things have progressively gotten worse, as shown in a 2019 study, Into the Web of Profit, done by Dr. Michael McGuires at the University of Surrey, which shows that the number of dark web listings that host illicit goods and services has grown by 20% since 2016, meaning at least 77% of the dark web is dangerous and illegal.

The protection of opponents of oppressive governments, data protection officers and whistleblowers should not come at the cost of enabling child abusers, arms dealers and drug traffickers. This is the challenge for law enforcement agencies: to develop methods that walk the fine line of protecting liberal values in the age of information control, while detecting and eliminating the most dangerous activities in the world.

The dark web is a tricky place to be, its not fully bad but neither is it fully good, just like the mainstream internet itself. It all depends on the person and what they choose to use it for. Unfortunately, not everyone chooses wisely.

 

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