The Chamber of secrets

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Some 80 percent of internet content deals with the darker side of life—torture, drugs, child pornography, ammunition…. and the more governments try to curb this, the less they will be able to do so [/h2]

By Aaqib Raza Khan


Click. The laptop screen goes black. Broken images attempt to show up, and then fail. The web page looks basic. A hyperlinked menu comes up and offers numerous choices to proceed: hitmen, crowd funded assassinations, choreographed torture, drug dealers, child pornography, arms and ammunitions and anarchy groups—all buzzing with activity. Anonymous users crawl through these pages. Welcome to the deep side of the web, also called the Dark Web or Deep Web.

According to Cisco Security Intelligence Operations, more than 80 percent of the web is “dark”, and is uncategorized by URL-filtering databases. The internet we surf is actually just the tip of the iceberg. This online chamber of secrets is right under the web pages you frequent and is invisible to search engine trackers.

EASILY ACCESSIBLE

So how does the Dark Web become accessible? While normal web addresses are preceded by “www” and suffixed by “.com”, “.org”, etc, the Dark Web works on “.tor” address. TOR stands for The Onion Router. The different layers of encryption give it the name of Onion. It was developed in the 1990s by the US Naval Rese-arch Laboratory for surveillance purposes and is legal, but its use has transcended time and applications.

Tor works by redirecting a user through a number of virtual networks before finally landing on the destination address. This removes the location and identity of the user and his machine. It’s used by people all over the world to bypass censorship rules, surpass organizational regulations and maintain strict anony-mity. It was reported that this underground network served the cause of numerous protest movements in Middle Eastern nations.

The project’s official website claims that fa-mily and friends use it to protect their dignity while using the internet; businesses use it to track competition and protect intellectual property; whistleblowers use it to safely report corruption (Edward Snowden and Julian Assa-nge used the Tor network to surpass survei-llance and leak “secret” documents); journalists use this network to maintain secrecy of contacts and information and armed forces use it to protect their investigations.

While normal web addresses are preceded by “www” and suffixed by “.com”,“.org”, etc, the Dark Web works on “.tor” address. TOR stands for The Onion Router.

“Most of the laws of the actual world are completely ineffective in the Dark Web, primarily because of its architecture and Tor brow-sers. Identity is invariably hidden behind various levels of anonymity,” says Pavan Duggal, cyber law expert. The National Security Agency of the US has also claimed that Tor is “the king of high secure, low latency internet anonymity”.

SHADOWY FIGURES

But the secrecy has come to haunt the system itself. The Onion Router works towards internet privacy as a non-profit organization, but its servers are now plagued by illicit activities. Nobody knows who propagates them, participates in them or maintains the portals. They are just shadows—dark and unrecognizable.

Andrew Lewman, executive director, Tor Project, said to betabeat.com, an online news portal: “In the late 80s and early 90s, we heard that the internet was for child molesters, money laundering, drug dealing and porno-graphy. ‘Who would want to use this internet thing? It’s only bad!’ That’s where the deep web is now.”

 

Silk Road-1

 

But the dark web is not all bad. It is also, says Lewman, a place where drug-addicts and victims of violence wary of disclosing their identity, can come to seek help anonymously.

Kabir Khalid (name changed on request), an undergraduate student at the University of Delhi, says that he often surfs the dark web while accessing the internet from college. “It helps bypass the internal security gateway. I find a lot of interesting, and sometimes banned, movies and books there to download,” says Khalid.

DARK SIDE

But the anonymous network has often been accused of promoting negative elements. It stocks arms and ammunitions, sells fake credit card details, fake passports, gives information about hitmen for hire and has Cheese Pizza, a codeword for child pornography. There are also gut-wrenching videos of torture and murders, human experiments and their reports and easy do-it-yourselfs on making bombs and cooking drugs. All of it can be accessed without revealing any information. However, there have been crackdowns on these nefarious activities. A recent global operation, “Ope-ration Onymous”, led to the arrest of 17 people and closure of many dark net domains.

Silk Road, Hydra and Cloud 9 are some of the most popular drug-peddling services available on the Dark Web. Here, stuff can be bought in exchange of bitcoins, an e-currency exchan-geable for real cash. One bitcoin is `22,020.04 (at the time of filing the story).

Bitcoins, says Duggal, have not been legalized by the parameters of the Indian IT Act. “Moreover, RBI has stated in a circular that bitcoins are highly speculative, and people need to be really careful.”

Tor also has its advantages in places where governments crack down on the internet. “Tor is a great tool for people connecting from countries with restrictive internet access (like China’s Golden Shield), but obviously it can be abused by people wanting to carry out illegal activities. It’s a double-edged sword,” says Gorgash, a Dark Web user, on community information networking service Reddit. Another user, humperdinkel, says on the same website: “I’ve only stayed on Silk Road, so the coolest thing I’ve seen is a sale of British passports and bulk amounts of co-caine.” And a Reddit user, dethrowawayz, says: “There’s nothing you will find on the surface web that can really compare to the Deep Web.”

Much of the political debate around the world has centered around the idea of internet and the right to freedom of speech. A free internet is synonymous with free speech. Govern-ments try hard to filter down the content, and sometimes define strict guidelines to tailor the internet. China blocked Twitter to curb dissenting voices. However, proxy servers help tech-savvy Chinese citizens to still access blocked websites. There’s always a way where there is a will.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

The Indian government too is keen to go down this controversial road. In September this year, Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad met senior officials of the Directorate of Telecom, FICCI, ASSOCHAM and CII to discuss the implementation of one such filter. The censorship is being aimed in the name of “communal harmony” and to block “objectionable content”.

The US is also witnessing aggressive deba-tes on net neutrality, which is for equality of access to all the websites against the proposed idea of boosting websites which pay a significant amount. Such selective control of internet content works against the open and democratic medium of the internet. It also eventually leads users to avenues such as the Dark Web, where they can voice their dissent and find content which is unavailable on the clear-net.

“First and foremost, any kind of blocking of electronic content is nothing but internet sensation and invariably leads to far more traffic to it. Countries across the world have tried to block websites and failed. It’s possible to access such websites through proxy servers,” says Duggal. “The Indian IT Act is frozen in time and has failed to keep pace with the march of technology. The act was made 14 years back, with an amendment only in 2008.”

PARTIALLY SHUT

However, moves to control the Dark Web are not always successful. The recent shutting down of various versions of Silk Road, starting with Silk Road by FBI in 2013, then Silk Road 2.0, and the emergence of Silk Road 3.0 Reloaded, show that there is no stopping the Dark Web, as newer, more advanced versions keep cropping up.

After the fall of Silk Road and Silk Road 2.0, Black Market Reloaded tried to fill in their shoes. Incidentally, Black Market Reloaded sells guns. “I feel sad for Silk Road,” writes the owner of Black Market Reloaded, whose user name is backopy. [The website] has been a great competitor all this time,” he says. The admin was Ross William Ulbricht, a 29-year-old graduate of the University of Texas.

The market had reported sales of $1.2 billion in two years. Though Black Market Reloa-ded page looks dead as of now, with rapidly changing identities and a flourishing grey market, it might just resurface again.

Duggal foresees that in future, privacy will be a concept of the past. Inter-connection of devices and networks will lead to a large number of complicated policy and regulatory issues. “It’s going to be different world altogether,” Duggal concludes. Rapid digitalization of devices and communication patterns point to a world heavily dependent on the internet. Facebook recently allowed access to its website in the Deep Web network, becoming one of the few mainstream websites to do so.

It’s obvious that Dark Web will remain rele-vant in the years to come, especially if there are institutional clamp-down on websites.

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