Whenever you hear about the darknet, it is usually in connection with criminal activity or information leaks, such as the recent Medicare data breach that made headlines in July 2017. It is a place where people buy drugs, sell weapons and hire hitmen. These stories paint the picture of a seedy underbelly, rife with nefarious villains and miscreants.
Few can deny the darknet does have its dark side. But could it possibly have a good side too?
Before we explore this question, it’s important to first have an understanding of what the darknet actually is.
What is the darknet?
What most of us think of as ‘the internet’ is really only a small fraction of what exists on the internet. Beneath what is known as the ‘surface web’ – made up of sites that can be found and accessed via a search engine – lies the mysterious and vast ‘deep web’. The deep web contains information that is not indexed by search engines, and thus not easily found. This might include things like state public records, academic journals, or password-protected sections of websites. Experts estimate the deep web is at least 500 times larger than the surface web, and it’s growing exponentially.
Just like an iceberg, the majority of the web lies beneath the surface. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The darknet is a subset of the deep web, and is designed specifically to be hidden and accessed with complete anonymity. This anonymity is achieved through the use of special tools that connect with the darknet. The most common of these is Tor (The Onion Router), which encrypts the user’s internet connection and routes their traffic through a network of volunteer relays located all over the world, ensuring their identity remains concealed from prying eyes.
Average number of Tor users per day between August 2012 and July 2013. Source: Oxford Internet Institute
Because of this anonymity, the darknet is a haven for criminal activity, from identity theft to drug trafficking. This is also where users can go to access ‘Cybercrime as a Service’ (CaaS), allowing them to purchase malware or sell data they have stolen from their organisations.
This of course makes the darknet a major concern for businesses: according to Symantec’s Internet Security Threat Report 2017, identity theft or fraud ranked No. 10 globally in the top 10 causes of data breaches for that year. The report also found that on the global underground marketplace price list, cybercriminals were selling off identities (i.e. name, social security numbers & date of birth) from anywhere between USD$0.1 - $1.50. And it’s not just large corporations or government organisations that have to worry about information being leaked to the darknet – according to the Australian SMB Cybersecurity Insights Report 2016, 10% of Australian SMBs reported they had fallen victim to online identity fraud.
But the darknet’s anonymity can also have benefits – though they may not be apparent at first glance.
The good side of the darknet
It promotes free speech
In countries or organisations where journalists, activists and employees may put themselves at risk by speaking out, the darknet offers a place where people are able to exercise free speech without fear of persecution. Whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have used the darknet to disseminate information. Reporters Without Borders have recommended the use of Tor as part of its ‘survival kit’ for bloggers and journalists, and it has also been recommended by organisations Human Rights Watch and Global Voices. In fact, the darknet is so vital to facilitating the spread of information that The Tor Project has even received a significant amount of funding (over $1.8 million in 2013) from the US Government.
It provides a safe space to ask questions and get answers
Because of its anonymity, the darknet provides a safe space for people to ask those questions they might be afraid to ask otherwise. Spanish physician Fernando Caudevilla, for example, is a trained harm reduction specialist who operates on the darknet and deep web as “DoctorX”, providing free impartial medical advice on illegal substances, thereby allowing drug users to make more informed decisions and minimise risk.
There are also darknet forums, like Hidden Answers, where people can exchange information on topics that are not necessarily openly discussed on the surface web. Another forum called Strategic Intelligence Network is a repository of information on how to respond to just about any crisis situation you can think of, from falling through ice to being abducted by aliens. If you ever wanted to learn how to make body armour or drive a getaway car, then this is the place to go.
It provides privacy
In this day and age, with claims of “uberveillance” rife, it is not just criminals who value their privacy. In fact, 2017 Norton Cyber Security Insights Report found that online privacy is now ranked in number two position for those consumers surveyed. For those who are concerned about corporations and governments tracking their every movement online, the darknet provides a viable alternative. This has led many mainstream social networks – including Facebook – to host darknet versions of their sites. In fact, according to Jamie Bartlett, author of The Dark Net, the Tor browser is now mainly being used to access Facebook privately.
It provides a place for criminals to congregate, thereby potentially making them more vulnerable
While the anonymity of the darknet does make it harder to identify criminals, it doesn’t make it impossible, as US authorities proved when they shut down AlphaBay, one of the biggest and most popular online black markets, in July 2017. Hansa Market, another large and well-known criminal marketplace, was also infiltrated around the same time, but rather than shutting it down straight away, Dutch police left the site running for a month, intercepting tens of thousands of messages and using these to identify delivery addresses for large orders. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) have reported receiving some of this data.
Darknet criminals can even be foiled by their own. Take “Intangir”, a hacker who ran a darknet website where users could upload personal details, putting people at risk for identity theft and fraud. Seems par for the course so far. But in a surprising stroke of vigilantism, Intangir took over “Hidden Wiki”, a page that provides links to the most popular sites on the darknet and is therefore essential when it comes to navigating it, and deleted all links to child pornography sites.
And just as human error can expose your organisation to cyberattacks, criminals can make mistakes that inadvertently end up exposing themselves too, as Anna-senpai, the author of the Mirai Worm malware (which takes over IoT devices and uses them in distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks), found when his real-life identity was uncovered via the darknet.
It can expose weaknesses in your organisation’s cybersecurity strategies
The Australian government were in fact unaware of the Medicare data breach before it was reported in The Guardian, causing them to perform an internal investigation and commission an independent review of health providers’ access to Medicare card details. While this type of exposure isn’t exactly great PR, it did help to mitigate further damage, with the Department of Human Services (DHS) reissuing just 165 cards after the breach.
Being familiar with how the darknet operates, and monitoring the darknet for compromised data can therefore help to protect organisations from more adverse consequences.
The darknet, it seems, is not as black and white as it appears in the headlines; rather, it is a colourful tapestry created by humans with complex motivations – good, bad and downright ugly.