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Evil marketplace or protective space?

Nov 08 2017 10:33
Mariam Isa

When news about the dark net surfaces, it invariably reinforces the perceptions people have of a sinister underworld where drug deals take place, financial fraud is facilitated, and the worst kind of pornography is viewed – all anonymously. 

In reality, that is only part of the shadowy picture. 

The dark net, or dark web as it is sometimes called, is also a haven for political dissidents, investigative journalists, whistleblowers and people who simply crave their privacy. 

This includes internet users who do not want their web footprints tracked for marketing purposes or their personal communications exposed to government surveillance. 

In November last year, a study released by US-based dark web intelligence company Terbium Labs found that illegal content in a random sample of 400 URLs comprised 52.3% of the total. Meanwhile, within the domains it examined, illegal content made up just 45.5%.

Of course, content does not equate to users, which operators of the browser commonly used to explore the dark net estimate at no less than 2m people a day. 

And in countries where free speech and political dissent is suppressed, much more of the content would be considered unlawful.

More predictably, the study by Terbium Labs showed that 45% of the illicit content by URL marketed illegal drugs while another 11.9% involved pharmaceuticals. 

Less than 4% of the content unearthed was the most nefarious – child pornography. 

That finding is disputed by many observers, particularly given estimates that at least half a million people worldwide are part of paedophile networks. 

“The dark web is host to primarily legal, even mundane content. The sections that aren’t legal are dominated by drugs, fraud, and combinations of illegal activity – primarily the dark web markets,” Terbium Labs concluded. 

But it added: “Just because the majority of content is legal, though, doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Disgruntled employees can post confidential information about their employers on the dark net without being identified. 

And two years ago, hackers brought down Ashley Madison, a dating service targeting married men, by anonymously dumping stolen information identifying its users on the dark net.

The dark net was originally developed by the US Navy in the 1990s and military, government and law enforcement agencies are still among its main users. 

It should not be confused with the deep web – the layer just below the surface internet, which can be trawled by search engines like Google, Firefox and Chrome. 

The deep web – which dwarfs the dark net – comprises large databases, academic journals, and members-only websites which are not available to the general public, such as online banking.

Accessing the dark net is relatively simple and not in itself illegal. Internet users can download a special web browser called Tor, short for The Onion Router, which masks their location by routing their connectivity requests through multiple locations, like an onion. 

Tor can also be used to anonymously browse the regular internet.  

Within the dark net, both web surfers and website publishers are completely anonymous, and government agencies normally trap criminal users with old-fashioned detective methods rather than technology – such as using people to infiltrate a marketplace by posing as buyers of illegal products.

Speculation has grown that law enforcement agencies have cracked down so effectively on illegal dark net marketplaces over the past few years that criminals will stop using them. 

In July, the US and European authorities announced they had taken out the two largest – AlphaBay and Hansa Market – in a double-fisted operation. 

First, they secretly took control of Hansa, the smaller of the two, then they publicly shut down AlphaBay and arrested its founder, a 25-year-old Canadian who committed suicide in his Bangkok jail cell a week later.

As the AlphaBay users fled to Hansa, the agencies gathered identifying details of its vendors and customers before shutting the site down. 

The news generated panic in the dark net community and scared some users away.

But as the old marketplaces disappear, new ones pop up. Kerri Crawford – a senior associate and technology and privacy lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright in SA – says this is a war that is unlikely to be won. 

“As long as there is money to be made through the sale of illicit products on the dark net, there will always be people prepared to take the risks of selling these goods there. This is no different to the sale of illegal goods in the physical world.”

Nonetheless, many researchers and companies believe that the dark net could see more mainstream adoption over the coming years as privacy concerns intensify globally. 

Facebook launched its own hidden service in 2014 and last year, the non-profit news organisation ProPublica became the first known major media outlet to launch a version of its site on the dark net.

Goldman Sachs warned in July that the dark net posed a “disruptive risk” to $75bn of online advertising revenue for big internet companies. 

Mariam Isa
is a freelance journalist who came to SA in 2000 as chief financial correspondent for Reuters news agency after working in the Middle East, the UK and Sweden, covering topics ranging from war to oil, as well as politics and economics. She joined Business Day as economics editor in 2007 and left in 2014 to write on a wider range of subjects for several publications in SA and in the UK.

This article originally appeared in the 2 November edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.
crime  |  internet  |  fraud

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