Ever heard of the Darknet? The new digital Wild West, whose mere name is so packed with mystery that it must be something weird and dangerous beyond human understanding? Well, I’ve been researching it for several years and the mystery has pretty much dissolved. What’s left is the excitement of this virtual, ever changing, ever pulsating world.
The Darknet is sometimes perceived as an out of control and dangerous misuse of unbreakable encryption that leaves the police helpless to solve crimes. Based on powerful tools like the anonymous Tor Browser and Bitcoin, the Darknet is often described as the ”dark underbelly of the Internet”. News anchors refer to spaces created with Darknet technology as a sickening dens of criminals, terrorists and perverts.
My view was similar when I started my own research of the Darknet. But labelling the Darknet only as the new criminal underworld just does not make sense. It’s so much more. Let’s have a look.
Sanctuary in an age of rampant violation of privacy
Did you just now take a break to snicker about what kind of “research” I’ve been doing on the Darknet? Well, you might be interested to learn that I’ve only learned to highly respect the fundamental value of the Darknet: privacy.
Taking into account that privacy is an indispensable human right and how much the Internet is being monitored now, the Darknet isn’t really much different than a “do not disturb” sign. Or using curtains in your bedroom. These are seen as perfectly normal things to do. It’s also not unheard-of for individuals and companies, like Ink Tank Media, to contribute to the Tor network by hosting relay servers, which route anonymized traffic around the world in layers of encryption.
We can in fact observe this in spiked interest in the Darknet and cryptocurrencies following the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013. The most massive spike is believed to be caused by bots, but the interest has grown and persisted. This is also implied by Google’s search trend data.
Many legislators however seem not to have understood the implications of Snowden’s revelations. You can still hear arguments like how people with nothing to hide shouldn’t care about privacy. I strongly believe that everyone should care, for several reasons.
Opposing surveillance is not paranoia
Cardinal Richelieu wrote in the 17th century: “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” But we’re far beyond sampling “six lines” now. Pretty much everything you do on the Internet is tracked and stored, presumably forever.
Ask yourself how you’d feel if the numerous Western intelligence agencies that try to monitor all internet traffic started to behave like the KGB/FSB or Stasi? To what extent are they doing that already?
This may sound a far-fetched, if you live in a safe Western democracy. But regardless of how much you want to think about possible Machiavellian tendencies in current affairs, it’s undeniably true that politics can change radically given time.
Consider that former NSA analyst and whistleblower Russel Tice claims his employer subjected then senator Obama and other leading US politicians to secret surveillance in the early 2000s. How does this fit into your model of democracy?
In non-democratic countries, privacy tools are already a matter of life and death to countless people every day. And worryingly, even some Westerners now depend on the Darknet. In fact, filmmaker Laura Poitras who made the Oscar winning Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour” is about to release a book on the surveillance and harassment she’s now subjected to. Tor is the only way she feels she can use the Internet.
So, privacy is important for practical reasons, but also as an ideal. It’s important because of the simple reason that humans need the luxury of private space where we can be ourselves.
An accelerator for criminal activity, but not the root cause of it
Like everything, privacy comes at a price. Threats facing civilized societies are asymmetric in proportion to what law enforcement can do in a democracy. There’s only so much one can do about that without losing freedom.
Privacy and anonymity, and the technology providing them, do indeed facilitate crimes, even very serious ones. The Darknet houses marketplaces for stolen credit cards, cybercrime services and human beings. It’s a convenient place for sick and sadistic people to meet and plan things too painful to even think about.
But just like cars aren’t the cause of bank robberies, the Darknet isn’t the reason these crimes occur. Wherever there are deep shadows, there are also creatures who feel comfortable in the dark. Humans have done horrible things to each other long before the Darknet, but many of them have found a home in it because of the anonymity it provides.
It would be foolish, however, to deny the role the Darknet has in the crimes taking place through it. Therefore, the Darknet also needs policing. It’s a good thing that law enforcement is doing their best to protect public safety in the darkest corners of the Internet.
However, police work shouldn’t include universal breaking of privacy enhancing structures, especially in the case of non-violent crime. Many good people depend on these structures – and as we’ve established, counter-measures may end up in wrong hands.
There’s no proof that limiting privacy leads to increased security. Intelligence agencies already collect a lot of information about individuals. Their main problem is not the lack of data but the capability to make sense of it. For instance, Turkey warned France twice about one of the Paris attackers, but never got any response. The signal was lost in the noise.
Virtual communities and cultures fostering technical innovation
The Darknet fosters many communities of dedicated, creative people. And masses of regular jerks as well.
It’s not unfair to call the cryptomarkets, that is, the anonymous markets operating inside the Darknet, masterpieces of criminal innovation. Especially ingenious is the fact that you can openly sell illegal products without the law enforcement being able to directly crack down on it.
As of now, crime on the Darknet is facing serious challenges, including some erosion of the strictest privacy provided by the Tor network, as state actors discover measures for de-anonymizing very high value targets. Further complicating matters, the Bitcoin community displays wilful inability to solve problems with network’s capacity for handling increased transaction volume.
Moreover, it seems a bit like the innovation that has been characteristic of the cryptomarkets has dried up, at least temporarily. Even though the trade in the cryptomarkets have grown, the marketplace aspect of the Darknet has to reinvent itself retain its vitality and avoid a decline.
Some interesting things are in the pipeline though. To name one, OpenBazaar is a decentralised market model that is going to be released in the near future. Learning curves aside, it could become another example of free market ideology spawning innovation.
You can add to the privacy capacity of the Darknet
Darknet marketplaces and cryptocurrencies go through their own cycles of booms and busts. And cracks in the façade of cryptographic protocols never get smaller, but bigger over time. In fact, in the case of Tor, strong anonymity protection relies on not disclosing information, only using public Wi-Fi and using secured laptops running the Tails operating system.
What then can casual users contribute or get from tools like the Tor network? Isn’t casual Tor surfing equal to stealing capacity from people who need it the most?
Well, the Tor network would benefit greatly in both performance and anonymity by getting new relays, especially “bridges” for people on heavily censored connections.
But in a small way, Tor also relies on everyone to help Chinese dissidents, whistleblowers and LGBT activists become needles in a haystack. While your everyday browser will uniquely identify you, Tor Browser is carefully tweaked to always look the same. This is why you can be a helpful part of an ever growing haystack by downloading the Tor Browser today, if only to read your morning news or to browse your daily dose of cat pics. You’re safe if you don’t send personal data and make sure to always install browser updates!
Eventually, you might find yourself using the Tor Browser to protect your own privacy: It’s a very good idea to use Tor for health related searches. Since anyone might be buying personally identifiable information from Western data brokers and ad networks, Tor could even end up keeping your insurance premiums down.
This is the complex, puzzling beauty of the Darknet: every normal, law-abiding user makes the network stronger and more helpful for those in need. The issues are complicated, but there are many reasons to feel good about supporting and using the Darknet.
Antti Järventaus is a freelance researcher and an expert in communications and social ethics. His interests include themes like corporate social responsibility, trend research in the Darknet and exploring the human mind. He has worked with a number of global brands such as Nokia, Cirque du Soleil, Deloitte and Rovio Entertainment.
Title image credit: Daniel Rehn