The legend of the deep, dark web
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Consider this: a world where you’re concealed not by an invisibility cloak, but one where you are revealed by the clothes you wear. No, I’m not embarking on an esoteric thought experiment. This world already exists and you engage with it every day in the form of the internet. I shall now try my best to not throw complicated terminology at you, like the techies did with me when I was researching this subject.
The internet which is overtly visible and easily accessible to users—in tech parlance, the “clearnet”—is only a small part of a much larger digital information space called the deep web. Online bank accounts, email, drop-box accounts, password-protected information, and basically all sorts of content that isn’t immediately accessible or indexed by search engines, collectively form this deep web. This technological construct also includes the misleadingly named “dark web”, a collection of networks that rely on anonymity and encryption, and which one can only access via specific software.
“A vast majority of the web is unindexed, which basically means that a lot of internet content is below the layers of search engines,” says Raghu Raman, an Indian Armed Forces veteran and a former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid. “In a way, Google is the media of the world as you only see what it shows you. There’s a lot of hidden content out there that no one has access to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad,” he says. Now group president, risk, security and new ventures, at Reliance Industries Ltd, Raman explains that surveying and understanding the dark web is important not just for governments but for big firms as well. “It’s important to know what could be a threat or an opportunity lurking beneath the layers that are typically caught by search engines.”
You may have come across the term “dark web” in a negative light, as I recently did, when news spread on 20 July of AlphaBay and Hansa being taken down by the American and Dutch governments in a joint effort. These dark web marketplaces for illicit drugs, weapons—and even assassination bounties—had evaded the authorities for many years. According to Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, AlphaBay had hosted roughly $1 billion (around Rs6,400 crore) worth of transactions, a lot of it in the digital currency Bitcoin, in its three years of existence.
At the risk of sounding morbid, the way assassination markets work is novel, to say the least. Here, people place bets on the likelihood of someone dying on a particular day. Obviously, this is just a backhanded way of putting out a hit order, as the assassin, knowing the date of an individual’s death, could also place a bet and act upon it.
The Tor interface is one of the more common ways to access the dark web. Tor, an acronym for The Onion Router, is a free software that allows users to anonymously connect to websites without being traced. When a Tor client connects to a Tor website, the data passes through several stages of encryption before arriving at its destination. This is analogous to the layers of an onion, which give the network its name. Websites on the Tor network have their own domain extension—.onion, along with a 16-character alphanumeric domain name like pwftyg45s23exer.onion.
Kiran Jonnalagadda, a technology enthusiast and co-founder of HasGeek, is quick to dismiss my question on what makes the dark web more suitable for illegal activities. “There’s nothing dark about the dark web, it’s just a subsection of the deep web that’s only accessible through the Tor network,” he says. “There’s is illegal trade on Facebook and Twitter as well.”
There are important things going on in the dark web too. For instance, WikiLeaks, an online archive agency that became popular for publishing restricted official material, started out by using the Tor network to receive data.
“Journalists in the Middle East are using the Tor network extensively,” says Mustafa Shahanshah, a Mumbai-based IT security specialist. “The recent spate of police brutalities in Venezuela during anti-government protests is also documented well on Tor news websites. You just need to know where to look.”
Sci-Hub, started by a Kazakh researcher in 2011, hosts over 62 million academic research papers—ones you would usually have to pay a hefty fee to view. It has survived several takedown attempts, resurfacing each time on a new domain. It also has its own .onion website, making it more resilient to future attacks.
Facebook also has its own Tor website for users in countries where it is censored, or for those who want to browse anonymously. Taking off from WikiLeaks, SecureDrop, another Tor-based service, is used by several media organizations, including The New Yorker and The Guardian, to securely exchange content between journalists and whistle-blowers.
In this aspect though, India is nowhere on the radar. According to Jonnalagadda, the Tor network requires infrastructure in the form of entry, middle and exit nodes. The latter being the final steps in the relay between the user and the website. “We don’t have many exit nodes in India, as the liability of intermediaries is uncertain, and exit node operators may find themselves responsible for the activities of anonymous Tor users.”