The Dark Web: what’s beneath the tip of the iceberg?

Have you ever thought of the internet as an iceberg? There are some good reasons to do so. What we can see is only a minor part of the total internet. Underneath is an invisible part, which forms the majority of the internet sites worldwide. We call this invisible part the ‘deep web’, with part of it being the ’dark web’. Deep and dark, like… the underwater part of an iceberg, indeed.

The dark web is nowadays closely linked to activities that don’t want to see the light of day: arms dealing, counterfeit, child pornography, … They often make use of the extension .onion, which can be considered the dark web equivalent of our .com or .lu extensions. Why onion? Because the actual message and the location of a message sender is hidden behind several layers of encryption, which makes it hard to intercept and decrypt it for outsiders. The very popular TOR browser builds on this imagery: it is an abbreviation of The Onion Router. 

Ironically, criminal activities were not the original purpose when the first ‘dark’ pages were created. People protesting against an absolutist regime were looking for means to communicate with the outside world without getting caught by the regime. That’s when browsers such as TOR became popular: they allowed surfers to browse in all anonymity. Other TOR browser users were less politically inspired but still had noble motivations to browse anonymously: they did not want other parties – such as Facebook, Google or even the government – to have access to their browsing history or other personal data.

But every technology – however noble the motivation of the creators – soon finds its way to less noble applications as well. That is why the dark web nowadays has become synonymous with dark and shady activities. It takes just a few clicks to gain access to sites such as Alphabay, which you could describe as “eBay’s evil twin”: just like eBay, the products and services are subdivided into categories, and vendors come with recommendations by other customers. Only the type of products and services differs drastically from the eBay offering: Alphabay shows categories such as drugs, counterfeit and all types of weapons. 

This is just a tiny portion of what you can find in the dark web: forged passports – 500 euro for a fake Belgian identity is a true bargain, no? -, escrow services, and less savory products such as child pornography pictures and videos. And of course you can find loads of service providers on sites such as ‘Rent-aHacker’ who can write advanced malware or even DDoS attacks for a very fair price. These service providers may well have created their own DDoS infrastructure by purchasing malware on the very same site.

What can we do?

The thought of a dark web lurking underneath our own ‘regular’ internet may seem very frightening, especially because it accounts – according to some sources – for up to 70% of the entire internet. But there is actually very little we can do to get rid of these darker, shadier and raunchier online activities. Police forces can infiltrate criminal online networks, gain their trust and thus prevent a criminal activity once in a while. But for every intercepted transaction, for every interrupted arms deal, there are hundreds of others taking place elsewhere. And the busted criminals are replaced more easily than they were captured.         

The online crime scene has become so professional and powerful that it is very hard for local and national police forces to fight them efficiently, because the ‘bad guys’ usually have larger budgets. And the very nature of the TOR browser and other technologies makes it very hard to discover identities and trace locations. So it seems that only the best equipped investigative forces, such as the FBI, have a fighting chance against these cybercriminals.

So, unless you have unlimited budgets and the best technological brains available, it will always be a matter of limiting whatever happens on the dark web. And for cybercrime fighters it is more a matter of infiltrating than eliminating cybercrime gangs. But for a regular person trying to find some anonymity in the dark web, I would advise to think twice: you never know who you encounter in the dark. It’s like walking in a dark alley with suspicious individuals around you: even with a bulletproof vest you may end up dead at the end of the day.

   

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