Debunking Myths: The Case For Dark Web

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Zain Hassan*

*The author is a cultural studies graduate, technology enthusiast and content strategist by profession.

Pakistan became the country with the highest number of dark web related queries on the internet in 2018. According to the Federal Investigation Agency, more than 1.3 million users searched terms related to the dark web after Zainab, the 7-year old from Kasur, was raped and murdered. The theory that a certain group in Pakistan was involved in shooting and selling child pornography online enraged the public and some even embraced a mission to find such content by themselves and report it to the concerned authorities. This outrage against the dark web was 3 years in the making. It started when a gigantic pedophilic ring was exposed in August 2015 and dozens of child pornographic material was recovered from Hussain Khanwala, a village of Kasur district. This led to the Criminal Law Bill of 2015 which criminalized child trafficking within the country. A year later, child porn was criminalized with the punishment of 7 years and a fine of 0.7 million Pakistani Rupees. In 2018, Sadaat Amin, a man from Sargodha who confessed on being associated with a global child porn racket, was convicted and sentenced 7 years in jail. Over 650,000 child pornography pictures and videos were recovered from Amin’s possession.

The interest of the general public regarding the dark web and its functionality reached its peak when the news of a 7-year old brutally murdered surfaced, followed by the revelations by Shahid Masood, a prominent Pakistani journalist and TV anchor, that Zainab’s murder waspart of a series of similar offenses by a man who is involved with a global ring emerged. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court took Suo Moto notice of the matter after Masood’s report and the general public demanded that the dark web be banned. Some who had conducted their independent research advised that only the government can take steps to find and ban content on the dark web because a normal user does not have enough bitcoins required to make an account on a dark web site. Others demanded that the government do its homework and catch those involved within Pakistan. Some rather questionable theories started appearing on our TV screens; including a particular report that suggested that one could plan to execute a targeted killing of any politician on the dark web. Top news channels of the country questioned the difficulty (without realizing that with a little research anyone can get answers to such question) in cracking down child pornography rings on the dark web. Countering illegal activities on the dark web is a very demanding task indeed. To put things in perspective, despite efforts by cyber police to shut down dark web sites, the UK still remains the biggest buyer of drugs on the dark web, followed by Finland at 46% and Norway at 30%.

The arrests of several people at the end of 2018 by the FIA after reports of almost 20,000 Pakistani users’ bank data was found on the dark contributed to the perception that dark web was nothing but a place where one could get involved in all kinds of criminal activities without being caught. The arrests were made after a report from a Moscow based cybersecurity agency, Group-IB.

The aggravation of the general public is understood but it is largely based on false reporting by our mainstream media and not on actual facts.

The Dark Web is a subset of the Deep Web, which is almost 500 times bigger than the surface web – the internet that can be crawled by search engines. Deep Web, which requires most of its users to log into sites before using, can also be referred to as a part of the surface that remains hidden. However, despite this great difference in size of the deep web from the surface web, the dark web – which is the subset of the deep web – only has a few thousand sites. The dark web is mostly associated with all kinds of criminal activities and most of us recognize it as a no-go zone with links to drug and firearm dealers and hackers and hitmen for hire. The dark web, however, has other uses as well. The dark web is a small space, made up of entirely encrypted websites that make it harder for anyone to track the user. Complete anonymity is, of course, the most known characteristic of the dark web and this is what makes it a perfect choice for those looking to indulge in notorious activities. However, experts suggest that this privacy can actually help us to create a more secure internet space where our rights, such as the right to free speech, are protected. The dark web can be particularly useful for privacy-conscious people who do not want Google or other search engines to track their activity and bombard them with advertisements according to their search history.

Accessing the dark web helps you hide your identity and location. Special software such as The Onion Router, more commonly known as TOR, is used to access the dark web. The TOR network does not consist of websites that end with a .com or .org but instead the websites on TOR have .onion pages which are extremely secure because of the stringent data encryption measures which are compulsory to enter the TOR network. However, in addition to browsing these hidden sites, users can also browse normal websites such as Google, Wikipedia or Facebook. Think of TOR as a browser through which you can browse Facebook but your data remains hidden and search presences remain hidden because even your internet service is unaware of the location you are browsing from. This is because when a connection request is made through TOR it is re-routed through several locations before reaching a destination. For instance, a connection request from Lahore would be routed to London and Barcelona before ultimately connecting to a server in Prague. This helps people like journalists and intelligence personnel to evade government security checks and browse freely.

The ‘dark’ in the term dark web is enough to scare people off when coupled with a few baseless media reports regarding the hidden web. Robert Gehl, in his book “Weaving the Dark Web; Legitimacy on Freenet, TOR, and I2P” argues that the dark web is greatly misinterpreted by the public and media alike. He writes that the dark web is not something that was developed just yesterday and has been there since the start. The dark web sites were created by people like Ian Clarke – an Irish computer scientist who founded Freenet – who did not agree to the security and privacy standards on the normal web. Due to the gap in awareness, we are made to believe that the dark web is a place where people sell drugs and provide stolen personal data for sale. Gehl further suggests that the websites on the dark web are created through a standardized process on similar technologies such as the HTML but they do not end in .com or .org solely because these domains are private enough for the site’s creators’ liking. Gehl mentions the Irish scientist multiple times in his book. Clarke founded Freenet which was a peer-based system for computers to disseminate data through a decentralized system. Initiatives similar to the Freenet were followed by TOR and I2P.

Our media portrays the dark web as a space dedicated to criminal activities without acknowledging that the normal Internet facilitates such activities as well. By creating a false perception all we are doing is pushing ourselves away from initiatives that could help us to browse the internet in a more secure environment. Gehl argues that the dark web can be more rightly understood if we understand the word ‘dark’ as going dark. Just accessing the dark web should in no way be deemed criminal. In this age of rapid technological advancement, we need space through which we can browse the Internet safely. It would be extremely unfair to categorize the dark web as a criminal space.

Another aspect that needs to be understood is the fact that deep web and dark web are two different sections of the internet. The dark web is just a very small part of the deep web, which is made of encrypted sites for security.

The deep web is anything that is visible to one individual and is not visible to the other. In fact, we are regularly using the deep web without realizing it. Most use the deep web in our everyday routine. The deep web is anything that can’t be accessed via search engines, hence making our Gmail Inbox, online banking profiles and office networks all part of the deep web! Every device connected to the internet has an Internet Protocol address and anyone can track your activity granted that they have permission to do so. With the right information, anyone’s location can be tracked in seconds. This is why the TOR came into being to be used by the U.S Navy for intelligence and data exchange purposes.

The dark web remains the most desirable option for intelligence personnel and rebels alike because it is accessed via special software that makes it nearly impossible for anyone to track their location and identity. TOR has a proven track record of facilitating rebels and activist to speak out and form alliances with like-minded people.

The TOR website defines itself as an “effective censorship circumvention tool, allowing its users to reach otherwise blocked destinations or content.” It may come as surprise to many that the dark web is often credited for having played a major role in 2010-2011 Arab Spring which took the world by storm. On a more mundane scale, people in countries such as China use the dark web regularly to access websites that are blocked in their country. Moreover, news agencies around the world have their own sites created on the dark web to facilitate whistleblowers to get their message across. Some of the websites even have automated systems that can deliver or publish a message from a whistleblower if they haven’t logged in after a designated interval. The dark web also has a pivotal role in helping religious or political victims get their message across without being identified. Victims of abuse can rest assured that action will be taken and their identity won’t be exposed. Furthermore, it is an excellent space to store your confidential data, as it cannot be crawled by any search engines.

The Onion Ring – which was named after the vegetable Onion owing to the several layers it takes to reach inside – hosts encrypted websites which can be used for several purposes. The fact that the dark web does have child porn sites and does host drug dealer from around the globe cannot be ignored as well, however, there are ways to counter such initiatives and governments around the world have taken sizeable steps to limit the negative use of the dark web. David Cameron formed a new intelligence agency in 2014 to monitor and counter any illegal activities on the dark web. Web consultants and experts have recognized the dark web as a space which attracts people looking to carry out criminal activities but also argue that there are measures a government can take to retaliate. Ross Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road, which was considered as the place to go to buy any kind of drugs, was arrested back in 2013. Although this helped spread fear to those operating nefarious websites on the dark web, this did not stop them from creating other similar websites. However, it did deliver a significant blow to the drug market.

Much has been said about the good things that the dark web can bring in our digitally advanced world but that is when we embrace it as a secure medium instead of a notorious marketplace. For an average Pakistani user, the dark web still remains a no-go space if you haven’t taken precautionary measures beforehand. The dark web is filled with people looking to find others who would either partner with them for illegal activities or can be easily scammed. Browsing the dark web without any safety precautions can infect your device with malware in a second. The hackers can gain access to your financial accounts or get your login details via keystrokes and that’s just the beginning. Moreover, when incidents such as the Zainab murder case happen, our law-enforcement agencies are likely to search for any and everyone browsing the dark web which can lead to uncalled surveillance. The dark web is certainly monitored by law enforcement agencies but we are not sure of the extent in Pakistan. Having said that, the tools for safely browsing the dark web are being developed as you read.

News outlets constantly refer to the dark web as a space where you can buy almost anything and the law enforcement agencies say that the dark web makes their task of catching the criminals red-handed difficult, but we can safely say that there is a side to the dark web we have yet to make use of. The use of dark web depends on the intention of the person browsing. There must be a reason that the dark web has significantly more users in countries such as Syria where the political situation has deteriorated over the years. However, we as the users of the dark must remain informed and take measures to browse it safely. The recent incidents in Pakistan did trigger an interest regarding the dark web; but we were too busy in categorizing it as the worst of spaces and, therefore, may have blinded our nation to ever see the relatively securer side of the dark web. Not all dark web users are pedophiles and criminals.

If our law enforcement agencies are genuinely interested in countering criminal activities on the dark they can learn from the FBI who have many a times done so by entering the dark web themselves and encouraging the users to click on malware which would then lead to revealing their location. According to a 2016 report, the dark web, on a whole, hosts around 30,000 sites and most of the content remains legal under the laws of most countries. If we look at this number in comparison to the billions of websites on the surface web it can be understood that countering drug dealers and child pornography is a task that is doable but requires patience and the right measures.