PS21 Report: The Dark Web


  • The Dark Web is not fundamentally evil, though it can be used in ways that are morally reprehensible
  • Our privacy has been largely compromised in the age of the Internet, but the Dark Web offers confidentiality to both good and bad people
  • In light of the need to protect civil liberties, there are actually many legitimate uses of the dark web
  • At the same time, we have seen no end to the horrendous crimes facilitated by the Dark Web
  • Law enforcement faces immense difficulties in keeping up with the complexity of the crimes committed on the Dark Web, especially in terms of the ambiguity of jurisdiction
  • We might hope to differentiate between good and bad uses of the Dark Web with advances in psychological analyses and the modernization of existing legislation

On Monday 21st September, Project for the Study of the 21st Century hosted a panel discussion on the dark web.

Please feel free to quote from the report below citing PS21. Contact if you wish to reach any of the participants.

Metsa Rahimi (Moderator): Regional head of intelligence, Deutsche Bank

John Bassett: Former GCHQ official, now at Oxford Univeristy

Tim Hardy: Technical writer, commentator and activist

Mike Gillespie: Director of cyber research and strategy, The Security Institute

The Dark Web is essentially an underlying level of the Internet that enables anonymous access to users. While the Dark Web may be employed in complex capacities to thwart authorities and potentially manipulate national security, this is simply a technology that offers concealed operation of the Internet.

Tim Hardy: Most Internet traffic is “dark” because it is not indexed. That’s what [the Dark Web] really means. It’s the unindexed web and anyone above a certain age remembers in the days before Google, most of the Internet was dark. If you didn’t know the address of a website, you weren’t going to find it. But the term Dark Web or Dark Internet is used in a very casual way by journalists.

John Bassett: I think you’ve got, in simplistic terms, an evolutionary chain. At the bottom of that chain, there are ordinary, decent criminals (as we used to call them) doing ordinary, decent criminal things on the Internet not very well. At the next stage up we have Law Enforcement who are generally stopping these ordinary criminals but are completely thrown by what I call the Dark Ones, the much more sophisticated people who think they can master the Dark Internet. The fourth level is national security, which at the moment is vastly ahead of the most advanced hacktivists but are very, very busy with other stuff. I think the size of the relative gaps between the ordinary criminals, law enforcement, the Dark Net people, and the national security apparatus gives you a sense of the pace of evolution in cyber security

The Internet has deeply eroded our sense of privacy. The Dark Web actually provides a channel through which to conduct your affairs without fear of scrutiny.

Mike Gillespie: The challenge here is that the Internet has opened up a huge amount of opportunities for communications, for doing business, for global problems, and all sorts of things. It’s also completely eroded the privacy that we used to enjoy. You know, maybe we have crossed the point of no return when it comes to privacy because we now live in an era where Apple and Google and the Android Foundation and organizations like this implicitly believe that they have a right to your privacy.

So we have, “the dark net.” Yeah, it sounds really evil, “the dark net.” It’s basically just an underlying level of the Internet, allowing secure, anonymous use of Internet. It actually allows Google and Apple not to see what you’re doing, if you configure it right.

The technology, in and of itself, is not fundamentally evil. Rather, certain individuals use the Dark Web maliciously.

Hardy: There is evil material out there and there are evil people in the world. I think we’ve got to be careful not to conflate the technology with the way some people are using it. There are many legitimate uses of these kinds of uses. I mean Tor comes out of American military research…it was developed and continues to be funded by government US sources because it has a legitimate function; there is a legitimate role for privacy.

Gillespie: Technology is just technology. And it will always be used by both good people and bad people. But what the dark net does do is it give us a secure and anonymous way of using the Internet for communications, and business and research and it allows a whole load of people in parts of the world where they would not be able to use these technologies to get their message out to the world. So, let’s not demonize it because of a small number of people.

You could have argued back in the 1800s that because there was slavery, we should’ve stopped people from using cargo ships. Actually, it’s not the technology, it’s not the communication method, it’s not the trade process that is the problem. It’s understanding, actually what’s the underlying reason why this crime is happening? And fixing that. Because, otherwise, everything else is just sticking plasters. And what we’re actually doing is putting a sticking plaster on a gangrene sore.

We must be careful to differentiate between legitimate uses of the Dark Web, and those that may not be morally acceptable.

Gillespie: Fundamentally, actually a vast number of users on the dark net are not pedophiles and criminals and terrorists. They’re people in oppressed regimes, they are using it as a means of getting their blogs out, getting their messaging out. It’s used by academics and researchers. It’s used by R&D organizations. It’s used by the public. It’s used by parents in many cases to protect their children from the evil that is corporate foundations that are looking to steal their identity and use their information. So actually, there’s a huge amount of legitimate usage on the dark net.

Hardy: Hardy: There’s a dual function here. It enables people to push beyond what is acceptable and that can be a terrible thing but it’s also healthy for societies. I think the more we communicate, the more people talk about things, the better – even in cases of extremism. We’re not going to stop extremist political narratives by denying people a voice. It is better to draw people out and get them talking and to start challenging their ideas. If we drive people into isolation and close off all channels, then it becomes self-fulfilling.

The danger of saying we are going to outlaw a tool that could be used for terrible things is that it also suggests that we have reached the end of history and we are not going to change any more. There are arguments about drugs. Another notorious thing about the Dark Web was the website Silk Road, which was basically an eBay for drugs – some would argue that is the end game for the War on Drugs – but it is only if we have already decided that drugs are a bad thing – that the world is fixed, that we have reached the end of history and know what is morally correct – it’s only if that is the case that we don’t need spaces where people can experiment and take risks and do things that are currently illegal or on the edge.

The Internet has actually empowered individuals operating against oppressive regimes. Yet, the Dark Web has in turn strengthened the capacity of the state to identify and penalize dissidents operating undercover.

Bassett: 25 years ago, we sat there at the end of the Cold War and wondered, what is going to happen next? How is it going to play out? One of the themes was the possible diminishing roles of the state. On the contrary, I now fear that one of the things the Internet will become is something that very much strengthens the power of authoritarian states at the expense of individual.

In a liberal democracy, we should always be cautious about the power of the state and the degree of oversight of that. And that’s where most of us here today are. But this bleak future is a global one especially in those states that aren’t particularly democratic, or aren’t at all democratic. This future looks really good for authoritarians, and there’s a small example of this just in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in which protesters made extensive use of social media which in the aftermath was immensely useful to secret policemen who were soon busy with their pliers and knives. An authoritarian regime can find out who the trouble-makers are and too often are doing and have taken them all away.

Law enforcement officials face many obstacles when targeting cyber criminals on the Dark Net.

Bassett: One of the problems we have at the moment, perhaps the one that the Dark Net brings most immediately to mind, is the challenge for law enforcement organizations to really get a grip on technically sophisticated cyber criminals. That’s quite a wide gap and it’s problematic. That has both impact on the individuals, but particularly on the business sector. If a bad guy really gets to the level to be a threat to national security then the game is over very quickly.

Gillespie: Jurisdiction is a massive issue, you know? Actually, the police are behind the curve when it comes to prosecuting basic cybercrime on the Internet, let alone managing the issue of criminality on the dark net. We know that here in the UK we are massively behind the curve, and we struggle to understand, we can’t even join it up across different counties, let alone across different countries. When you get mugged in the street, the location of the crime, the victim, and the perpetrator is where? It’s a street, yeah? When you get mugged online, where are you? Where are you when you’re online? Is it where you sat physically, or is it where you were working electronically? Where is the criminal? Where is the actual crime taking place, and whose jurisdiction does all of that fall upon? Actually, that’s the biggest problem. We have no strategic approach to deal with this holistically and globally.

Developments in psychological analyses and the modernization of existing legislation can help to identify good versus evil on the Dark Web.

Bassett: We look at Breivik, the mass murderer, and see what other characteristics such a person has on the Internet. How can we spot this behaviour before it ends up resulting in mass murder? And people are likely to identify such trends either using behavioural psychology or just using sheer quantative analysis of previous behaviour. Depending on the acceptability of false negatives and false positives, it’s not hard to imagine having a system that scans the data to identify people that have characteristics, whether quantative or psychological, of someone who may become a mass murderer.

There’s a body of legislation from the 1990s which was written and debated by people who barely used the Internet, and which is now antiquated… The Anderson position is, crudely speaking as I understand it, that there is neither too much nor too little interception going on, but that the legislation for it is scattered all over the place. I think if it is purely a modernizing bill, I would think that should claim support across the House, frankly… The idea of a bill, which is purely a modernizing bill, and keeps essentially the same capabilities, recognizing we are now in 2015 and not in 1995, I think is a good thing, something we should welcome whatever our position on civil liberties and so on.

Report by Amanda Blair. Transcript by Amanda Blair and Yaseen Lotfi.

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