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[tor-talk] Wired: "The Dark Web as You Know It Is a Myth"
WIRED Opinion -- Joseph Cox is a journalist covering the intersection of
technology, crime and politics.
The ‘dark web’ may be close to becoming a household name. After the
conviction of Ross Ulbricht, the owner of the drug marketplace Silk
Road, and a stream of articles claiming that the Islamic State is using
secret websites to plan out attacks, this hidden part of the Internet is
being talked about more than ever.
But for the most part, the story you’ve been sold about the dark web is
I know this because I’ve been there. Since 2013, I’ve interviewed the
staff of drug marketplaces about their paid DEA double-agents, tracked
how technologically sophisticated pedophiles cover up their tracks, and
also discovered that active Uber accounts were being sold on the dark
web for as little as a dollar each. I’ve also learned that the real
story is not at all the one you commonly hear—the tale of a gigantic
space below our usual web, where hard-to-find vices are traded among
sordid individuals totally beyond the grasp of the authorities. That is
not what the dark web is.
The Rest of the Web Is Just as ‘Dark’
Read nearly any article about the dark web, and you’ll get the sense
that its name connotes not just its secrecy but also the low-down dirty
content of its shadowy realms. You’ll be told that it is home to several
nefarious things: stolen data, terrorist sites, and child porn. Now
while those things may be among what’s available on the dark web, all
also are available on the normal web, and are easily accessible to
anyone, right now, without the need for any fancy encryption software.
For years there have been sites where you can instantly buy a stranger’s
Social Security Number, date of birth, full name, address and phone
number for under a dollar, or others that host reams of stolen credit
card details, ripe for a fraudulent spending spree.
Terrorist forums are also hiding in full view of anyone with an Internet
connection. Regular websites allow extremist supporters and prominent
jihadis alike to communicate with one another and post brutal propaganda
videos. Al Qaeda’s first forum was launched way back in 2001, and
although that site was shut down, a handful of other violent Islamic
extremist sites continue to exist on the normal web and are used heavily
today. Shutting these sites down is “like a game of whack-a-mole,” Evan
Kohlmann from Flashpoint, an intelligence company, told me last year.
Despite reports, there are only shreds of evidence that the Islamic
State is using the dark web. One apparent fund-raising site highlighted
by the Washington Post had managed to garner exactly 0 bitcoins at the
time of writing, and this was also the case with another I discovered
recently. It’s worth pointing out that both of those sites simply
claimed to be funneling the cash to the terrorist group, and could
easily have been fakes. The one Islamic extremist dark web site to
actually generate any revenue mustered only $1,200 earlier this year.
Even it doesn’t explicitly mention the Islamic State.
And yes, child porn is accessible on the normal web. In fact, it is
rampant when compared with what’s available from hidden sites. Last
year, the Internet Watch Foundation, a charity that collates child
sexual abuse websites and works with law enforcement and hosting
providers to have the content removed, found 31,266 URLs that contained
child porn images. Of those URLs, only 51 of them, or 0.2 percent, were
hosted on the dark web.
It’s More Like a Dark Nook
What we call the dark web is tiny. The World Wide Web has swelled to
over a billion different sites, while current estimations put the number
of Tor hidden sites at between 7000 and 30,000, depending on what
methodology you follow. That’s 0.03 percent of the normal web. Barely a
fraction of content available elsewhere. The collection of all these
hidden sites is not, as is commonly spouted by governments and many
members of the media, several orders of magnitude larger than the normal
It’s not clear how many people access the dark web on a daily basis, but
there’s the impression that it’s a small number of individuals. The Tor
Project claims that only 1.5 percent of overall traffic on its anonymity
network is to do with hidden sites, and that 2 million people per day
use Tor in total. In short, the number of people visiting the dark web
is a fraction of overall Tor users, the majority of whom are likely just
using it to protect their regular browsing habits. Not only are dark web
visitors a drop in the bucket of Tor users, they are a spec of dust in
the galaxy of total Internet users.
It’s Not Impenetrable
Finally, the dark web is not some zone beyond the reach of law
enforcement. Although Ross Ulbricht is the most famous dark web
personality to get busted, he is far from the only one. Over 300
dark-web-affiliated people have been arrested since 2011, according to
independent researcher Gwern Branwen. Dealers of drugs and guns, people
who order illegal narcotics, and the staff and administrators of sites
have all been successfully apprehended by police. However, this number
should be considered as the “lower-limit” Branwen previously told me,
because it only includes those arrests that are related specifically to
the dark web markets and which are publicly known.
The people who run child abuse websites or produce illegal material are
also being caught. In October 2014, a Brazilian dark web pedophile site
was seized, and 55 people arrested. Then just last month Australian
police went public about an operation that had shut down one of the
largest child abuse sites in existence. Just like in the physical world,
it turns out that some traditional police tactics, such as going
undercover, are incredibly effective against criminals on the dark web.
So What the Hell Is the Dark Web?
Of course, there is a technological space called the dark web, where the
servers of websites are hidden behind a veil of cryptography, and users
also enjoy strong anonymity protections. But that space is nothing like
the fairy tale that has been concocted around it; that of a colossal
ocean of digital stores selling exclusive products, where criminals are
free from prosecution. That characterization is not true.
Instead, the dark web is a small collection of sites that reflect the
limited number of good, bad, and downright weird humans that use it.
Doctors can give impartial advice to drug users, who come out of the
woodwork because of the anonymity awarded to them by Tor; Chinese
citizens can discuss whatever they like and circumvent The Great
Firewall, and, yes, the dark web is also used to host some seriously
depraved sites, such as extreme pornography. At the moment, the space is
probably used mostly for criminal purposes, but its relevance to the
world of cybercrime and other domains has been grossly exaggerated.
Looking beyond the scaremongering, however, the dark web actually has
promise. In essence, it’s the World Wide Web as it was originally
envisioned: a space beyond the control of individual states, where ideas
can be exchanged freely without fear of being censored. As countries
continue to crack down on the web, its dark counterpart is only going to
become more relevant as a place to discuss and connect with each other.
We shouldn’t let the myth of the dark web ruin that potential.
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