The Dark Net is the part of the internet that isn’t searchable through Google or readily visible to normal users. Despite its reputation as a hive of criminality, and the word ‘dark’, it’s used for both good and bad purposes.
The main thing to know is that the people who use the Dark Net do so for the privacy and anonymity it affords them.
The most commonly used part of the Dark Net is a hidden network that is accessed by loading software called The Onion Router (widely known by its acrynom, Tor) onto a computer.
People can download this freely available, open-source (ie collaboratively created) software from the regular internet then install it on their computers. Then, when they use this router to visit a website or communicate with another user, all their messages, posts and transactions are hidden.
Political dissidents in repressive societies use Tor software to access censored sites and information without their government’s knowledge.
In addition, the people who visit these sites aren’t able to see where they are located. The actual location of the site, which could lead to information about the creator, is unable to be found.
These communications are also hidden from governments, law enforcement and security agencies. They also can’t see where these websites are based, what the users of the websites are doing, or – without a lot of time and effort – trace how they got there.
In short, using Tor software ensures all communications on the internet remain hidden and private.
Good intentions behind its invention
While the Dark Net, as a whole, has a reputation as a refuge for paedophiles and drug dealers, its background is far more well intentioned. Tor software was originally developed by the United States Naval Research Laboratory as a way for people who lived under authoritarian regimes to communicate with human rights activists, other governments or journalists.
And a legitimate part of the Dark Net’s enduring appeal is that it helps people evade censorship. For instance, political dissidents in repressive societies use Tor software to access censored sites and information without their government’s knowledge.
It’s also useful for victims of domestic violence who may be being stalked as well as shelter agencies and whistleblowers.
Obviously criminals have a great need for privacy too. The Dark Net is used, among other activities, for buying and selling drugs, the sale of illegal arms, the distribution of child pornography and the trading of stolen personal data such as credit card numbers.
Now, just how does Tor software give a person anonymity? This can get technical, so stay with me.
Nodes that don't know the final destination
When users are using Tor software, the information they key into their computer goes into an entry node, or redistribution point, on the Tor network. That entry node then sends that information to another node, or branch, of the network. Again, that node sends it to another, and so on.
What’s important to know is that while each node knows the next branch of the network to send the information to, none in the chain of command knows the final destination or the complete path the information has taken, or will take.
Some intelligence agencies have supercomputers that decrypt all sorts of things, but it comes down to how much effort the agency wants to put in.
There are up to 7000 nodes, or relays, that a single message or route to a website can pass through. And each has its own layer of encryption (hence the analogy to an onion).
When the information finally gets to the exit node, its last level of encryption is removed. To the recipient, be that a website, or a person, it appears that the exit, or final, node, rather than the sender, is the originator of the communication.
Of course, nothing is impenetrable. There have been a number of methods to try and defeat Tor. But in the end, everything is a question of computational power and resources. Some intelligence agencies have supercomputers that decrypt all sorts of things but it comes down to how much effort the agency wants to put in. For instance, there’s a different desire to go after someone like Osama Bin Laden as compared to you or I.
Of course, people can be lazy and slack about operational security, which can also lead to them being caught. The most famous case involving the Dark Net was drug-selling website Silk Road and its founder, Ross William Ulbricht.
He was identified because the details within his Silk Road site on the Dark Net had real information that he had used on the open internet years before. That allowed him to be matched with the Silk Road site and be prosecuted.
He got a life sentence. Just a cautionary tale...
Dr Stephen McCombie is Senior Lecturer in Cyber Security at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology.