Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Dark Side of the Internet

Published on the Sunday Times (TechSunday) 16th November 2014

Edward Snowden, the computer wizard who disclosed illicit U.S. government surveillance, unknowingly helped popularize the dark web in recent months after it was reported that he repeatedly used this technology to communicate with journalists and managed to evade even the most sophisticated spying technology used by the United States.

Julian Assange, another controversial figure, founder of Wikileaks and considered as an enemy of the state by American politicians, who to this day has already spent two years living under asylum condition in the Ecuadorian embassy in the U.K. started hosting his website on the deep web in 2004 and no one ever managed to trace it back to him.  However in 2006 he decided to go public and that is when his problems started, nevertheless he still recommends to people who decide to reveal information about government wrongdoing to still use the deep web to communicate with him so as to be able to conceal their identity and avoid reprisals.

Search engines cache the web almost daily to be able to provide results according to the search keywords we use.  Nevertheless they are only able to spider a fraction of the entire internet.  There is even a larger interconnection of webpages lurking below the surface, most people have never been around the dark web even tough recent estimates are guesstimating that the Dark Web is actually a hundred times larger than the known-web we surf daily.  You cannot reach such depths when surfing using standard web browsers like Chrome or Explorer or just by using Google or Yahoo.

Specialized software like the TOR browser are generally used to access pages ending in .onion named after the fact that the encryption used for such pages is similar to peeling an onion, messages transmitted through the dark web via several network nodes are ‘peeled’, each router removes a layer of encryption to uncover further instructions until the final destination is reached.  This offers a degree of unprecedented encryption and anonymity which not even the HTTPS secure communication can ever reach.

The Dark Web has been compared to an island in which no legal jurisdictions exist.  This doesn’t mean that the Dark Web is completely negative tough, far from it, the dark web is being used right now to communicate inside countries where Governmental controls on the internet are strict, for example in China, North Korea and Syria.  Up to a couple of years ago the famous photo depicting a lone ordinary Chinese citizen in front of a Military Tank in Tiananmen square was never seen by anyone in China whilst today, thanks to the deep web, not only can such citizens communicate with the outside world but they are also able to do a limited amount of business transactions as well.

During the Libyan uprising the dark web played an important role in helping anti-Ghaddafi forces to receive updated satellite images and communications without being intercepted by pro-Ghaddafi forces who were controlling the entire Libyan internet and telephone communications at the time.  After the uprising it was discovered that the Libyan authorities not only had the technology to intercept any communication or file transmitted via the normal internet but also had software to change such files in real time to misinform the enemy.  It was only possible to circumvent this by using the dark web as a communication platform at the time.

Just like anything else in life, not all activities have noble intentions on the Dark Web.  Silk Road was perhaps the most infamous online marketplace hosted on the Deep Web.  It was possible to buy and sell anything anonymously on this online marketplace, it was like going on ebay to buy any type of illegal drugs, firearms or even order an assassination.  At it’s peak in early 2013 the site had 10,000 listings, around 70% of which were for drugs.  Various US  law enforcement authorities spent years trying to trace the operator of this website until finally in October 2013, Ross William Ulbricht was arrested on suspicion that he was running this website after an undercover FBI agent lured Ulbricht to do business in the open and not on the dark web itself.  The FBI managed to seize around 28 million dollars in bitcoins from Ulbricht’s residence, however due to the anonymous nature of the technology used, the FBI are finding it very difficult in court to prove any connection between the alleged owner of silk road and his operations.  Legal experts are expecting a not guilty verdict tough it is expected that Ulbricht will receive a prison sentence for not declaring and paying any taxes on the millions of dollars he managed to acquire in the last years.  Many are drawing comparisons to Al Capone, the 1930s Mafia Boss who was only indicted for not paying any taxes.

However just like in real life, taking out one drug kingpin only makes space for another one ready to fill in the void and within a few days of silk road being taken down a new website took it’s place on the deep web called Agora offering basically the same services, to this day it’s still operating.
The Deep Web is not just home for crooks tough, it is also home for heroes.  Fernando Caudevilla, a Spanish medical doctor known online as DoctorX is one of the many Deep Web inhabitants.  He has set up a website providing immediate replies and provides help to drug users.   He is very respected and sought after in this community and he is credited with having saved thousands of people around the world who have overdosed and refused to go to hospital to seek emergency medical help because of fear they might end up having to face the legal system afterwards.

A lone anonymous hacker calling himself by the pseudonym Intangir is doing something which many law enforcement agencies all around the world are incapable to do because of lack of technical expertise.  This hacker is finding online pedophile rings and one by one is shutting down these websites.  He is also stealing credit card and data which could lead to expose these pedophiles.  His twitter account gets flooded with praise whenever a bust is made, however he has also attracted enemies who have publicly posted million dollar bounties to be paid to anyone who is able to reveal his identity.  Intangir says that he is not afraid of this as he is quite sure that thanks to the Deep Web no one will ever be able to trace his online identity back to his real life and he is able to continue going to work, play with his children in parks and continue with his everyday life just like everyone of us whilst at night he turns into an online vigilante a virtual Batman if you like, delivering his own justice in a place where law enforcement is practically non-existent and toothless.

Even though the Dark Web is a lawless place, it’s still governed by moral ethics and we can conclude that after all it’s not a completely sinister place at all.  It can after all be described as a very colorful space.

Original article published on the Sunday Times (Tech-Sunday supplement) on the 19th October 2014:

Copyright notice : This article was written by Ian Vella and published on the Sunday Times of Malta.  Copyright may be shared between the mentioned author and entities.  Please do not republish without permission.  

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