The hid­den in­ter­net

Should you be wor­ried by the so-called ‘dark web’? It turns out there’s not as much to fear as you might think

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There’s a di­vide on the in­ter­net be­tween the web we know and love and the so-called ‘dark web’, a col­lec­tion of sites that aren’t in­dexed by search en­gines. You may al­ready have heard of it; the dark web was the home of the no­to­ri­ous Silk Road, a site which sold var­i­ous il­licit goods be­fore a high-pro­file FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion shut it down in 2013. More re­cent ac­tiv­i­ties have seen two fur­ther crim­i­nal mar­ket­places shut­tered, but they’re un­likely to be the last. So should you be con­cerned about the dark web?

It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand what the dark web ac­tu­ally is. The term can re­fer to any on­line con­tent that can’t be found by con­ven­tional means, which can mean pri­vate data­bases or hid­den fold­ers, but it’s of­ten ap­plied to sites only avail­able when run­ning your in­ter­net traf­fic through The Onion Router, or Tor. Tor is usu­ally used for pri­vacy, since it anonymises your in­ter­net traf­fic and con­ceals your lo­ca­tion on­line.

The con­cept of Tor isn’t il­le­gal, and the ser­vice it­self is not re­spon­si­ble for crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, but it’s not hard to see why it could be at­trac­tive to those skirt­ing the law. In­di­vid­ual ma­chines on the Tor net­work can be set up as se­cret sites. Those who want in need the ad­dress – gen­er­ally a jum­ble of let­ters and num­bers – and this can change fre­quently. Trans­ac­tions also usu­ally take place us­ing cur­ren­cies such as Bit­coin, which are them­selves built on pro­tect­ing pri­vacy.

How­ever, the dark web isn’t – as some cor­ners of the me­dia may sug­gest – a hive of scum and vil­lainy and noth­ing else. And cor­re­la­tion is not cau­sa­tion; the use of pri­vacy tools does not make you a crim­i­nal. It’s next to im­pos­si­ble to stum­ble onto some­thing you shouldn’t on the Tor net­work. The vast ma­jor­ity of its users sim­ply use it to anonymise their web traf­fic – and as more and more gov­ern­ments de­cide to snoop on their cit­i­zens (in­clud­ing in the US and the UK), the im­por­tance of pri­vacy tools is only go­ing to rise.

The web had crim­i­nal mar­ket­places be­fore Tor, and it’ll have them af­ter. It is not the tools that are the prob­lem – it is the users.

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