On the 26th of March, we invited our community to join us on a journey through the Internet’s eerie underworld, guided by Leonhard Weese, President of the Bitcoin Association in Hong Kong (who also moonlights as a dark web genius).
After a brief exposition of its history, Leo focussed on Tor (The Onion Router), a browser similar to Firefox but specifically designed to protect user identities.
FYI: Tor can be installed on regular laptops, as well as iPads and smartphones. Installing the programme is easy, running it and using it is not very different than using any other type of browser. Through Tor, you can visit your regular websites on the surface web, but Tor also allows you to visit sites that are exclusively located in the dark web. This is slightly more complicated. (If you need to refresh your memory on what the dark web was again... have a look at one of our earlier posts)
According to Leo, browsing with Tor is similar to sending an envelope around the world with multiple envelopes inside, each time instructing the recipient to send the package on to another address, until at last it reaches its destination where its contents can be securely decrypted. Leo also explained that the more people use Tor or run a ‘relay node’ (basically an intermediary post-office that forwards envelopes), the better user identities are protected.
Apart from learning how to find .onion sites, which are sites specifically designed and only available via Tor (as opposed to .coms, .orgs, .govs, etc.), Leo also introduced OnionShare to the audience. This service allows users to share files (of any size) anonymously and quickly. We also had a quick look at onion versions of WikiLeaks, Hidden Wiki, ProPublica and Facebook.
Of course, there were many questions from the audience about the infamous drug and arms markets, freelance hackers, assassins for hire, live streaming torture channels and other illegal content, but after careful consideration we came to the conclusion that most of such sites are just people trying to make a quick buck (without offering any actual service).
This doesn’t mean that the high degree of anonymity offered by the dark web is unattractive to criminals, but it is also vital for human rights defenders in repressive regimes, journalists to exchange sensitive footage and information, for citizens that want to access news publications blocked in their own country, or even just for the average Joe that doesn’t want governments monitoring their Internet activity.
What would be the first thing you'd look for if you were on the dark web?
So why the dark web? Here are a few reasons:
You can access almost anything (if not more)
The dark web offers a way for people living in heavily censored environments to access information, such as news or television broadcasts, from around the globe without government filtering, "interpretation" or censorship. Some sites are exclusively available on the dark web.
You can pretty much say or do anything
The dark web let’s you pretty much share and say anything (not always for better). But what this does mean, however, is that activists, journalists, marginalised individuals, dissidents and, of course, whistle-blowers are able to come together for a greater good.
You can stay under the radar
Especially when used with a VPN, the dark web basically provides an environment where data about your person is not constantly being mined and used for a wide range of commercial purposes (ever wondered how Instagram just knew you wanted that face cream?). If you’re on a mission to do good, the dark web provides plenty of platforms (such as forums) to connect with other like-minded users and rally to action.
Sounds great, right?
We’d tend to agree but before you get too excited,
here are some reasons the dark web may fail you.
Much of it is just awful
The dark web's nature attracts criminal activity ranging from the sales of illegal goods to the trading of illicit pornography. The dark web also operates as a hub of illegal activity allowing for criminals to communicate without a trace within exclusive, invite-only chat rooms. Not to mention dirty secrets or bank PINs up for sale.
It’s a web of cybercrime
If visitors to the dark web are not careful, a user can be tracked and their personal details can be stolen and used against them. And, of course, chances are your dark web purchases won’t always arrive and since everyone’s anonymous… what are you going to do about it?
Navigating the dark web isn’t easy
While anyone can access the dark web, doing so in a safe manner requires some skills and know-how. It also takes some practice to navigate the dark web, as search engines that operate within the dark web are not as straightforward as, say, Google or Yahoo!. Also, authorities are constantly taking sites down and the sites or forums you can visit often require an invite or complicated registration process.
There aren’t any rules
Because users are pseudo-anonymous and there are hardly any laws or regulations that are enforced on the dark web, users are pretty much left to their own devices (pardon the pun). It is difficult to build trust over the dark web and if something were to go wrong, authorities are unlikely to be able to help (that’s assuming they’re willing to).
Human rights defender or not, there’s a lot that the dark web has to offer. The heightened awareness of privacy and censorship issues on the Internet marks a movement towards maturity for us netizens. However, it also raises the prospect of more mainstream uses of the dark web.
As we continue to debate the contentious world of data privacy, you can join us as we carry on the conversation with our hacker friends on 17 April in Hong Kong.