Can the ‘Dark Net’ be policed? Should it be?

Consumer protection, Politics, Privacy, Technology

The Dark Net (sometimes written as “Darknet”) encompasses the margins of the Internet beyond what can be seen in a normal Internet search. In the popular imagination, it has come to represent all of the unpleasant and insidious activities on the web, from child porn to terrorism and money laundering, but in reality, many of the activities that take place there are completely legal—sometimes even benevolent.

The Arab Spring revolution, which saw long-entrenched middle eastern despots dethroned, was coordinated on the Dark Net, and hacker vigilantes (such as Anonymous) expose unscrupulous organizations by coordinating under the radar. Ironically, without the cloak of the Dark Net, government agencies would not be able to execute the enforcement needed to fight the very criminals and terrorists the Dark Net protects.

How it works

In order to access the sites on the Dark Net, one needs to use a truly secure “Dark Net browser,” as engines like Google and Bing cannot detect the sites whose owners have gone to great lengths to hide them. The platform of choice is Tor, the official browser of the world’s government agencies, though other popular choices include I2P (Invisible Internet Project) and Freenet.

Dark Net browsers hide the identity of their users by transmitting their connections across a vast global network of anonymous relays, rather than establishing a direct connection as a normal browser would.

“Journalists use Tor to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and dissidents. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use Tor to allow their workers to connect to their home website while they’re in a foreign country,” reads the Tor documentation. According to the Tor Project, the government-funded NPO that manages the browser, the dark net accounts for only three percent of Tor usage.

Tor itself was founded by the National Research Laboratory (NRL) as a tool not just for dissidents, but to enable federal operatives to work on the web and not be readily identified as government staff. In other words, an identifiable military intelligence network is a lot easier to attack than a hidden network trafficking data anonymously in a sea of hidden networks under the cloak of Tor.

Illegal activities on the Dark Net

In the two years since its most notorious illicit drug site, Silk Road, was busted, the Dark Net has continued to expand. Silk Road recorded over 13,000 total drug deals in November 2013, but since then, a dozen websites have taken its place, and the number of Dark Net drug deals has more than tripled. The virtual currency of choice in drug transactions is Bitcoin—the use of this digital currency for purchasing illegal goods has risen dramatically on the Dark Net.

Of the 80,000 respondents surveyed in the 2014 Global Drug Survey, 22 percent had sourced drugs online and 44 percent of those had done so for the first time during 2013. According to a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University released in August of 2015, criminals earn over $100 million a year by selling drugs, weapons, and other contraband over the Dark Net on hidden websites like Agora, Silk Road 3 (yes, it’s still operating under different names), ABRAXAS, Dream Market, AlphaBay, and many others.

Law enforcement efforts

Dark Net browsers like Tor provide an immense challenge for law enforcement, and they are reaching out to third-party cybersecurity firms to develop solutions. One such firm is Hacking Team, which has been marketing tools to hunt criminals and dissidents operating on the Dark Net since at least 2011. Embarrassingly, Hacking Team itself was hacked and its emails leaked onto the Internet in July 2015.

One leaked email between an FBI employee and a representative of Hacking Team asked if it were possible to “reveal the true IP address of target using Tor….If not, can you please provide us a way to defeat Tor….? Thank you!” Other leaked correspondence revealed that the FBI has spent $775,000 on Hacking Team services and software already, which may beg the question: Why is the government funding tools to fight tools that it currently funds?

While Hacking Team may be amateur hour in the scheme of things, DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) new search juggernaut, Memex, developed to combat slavery and sex trafficking, is proving to be a potent first step in uncovering the worst of the Dark Net. Evidence uncovered using Memex has already contributed to 20 sex trafficking investigations in New York. Memex testing is planned to continue in other areas of law enforcement, including sales of illegal weapons and drugs in the near future.

So should we police the dark net?

While the Dark Net will likely continue to change shape to avoid detection, it is important to ask not if it can be policed, but in what manner it should be policed. Granting tools to law enforcement agencies of the world that give them uncheckable power over the Dark Net may end up causing more harm than good, with disastrous consequences in places where it provides the only voice of dissent.

Image courtesy of g0d4ather / 

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