Opinion: Understanding the mysteries of the dark web

In today’s world, it’s a challenge to keep up with our knowledge about the latest technologies. A constant flow of new inventions makes it easy for people to lose track of things, completely passing over interesting and relevant news. Think about how often you hear discussions of election interference, net neutrality and cryptocurrencies. Now try to gauge your level of understanding of these topics.

If you struggle articulating what each of these mean, don’t worry, you are not alone. However, in a society where technology — particularly the internet — is integrated into everything we do, a basic understanding of current trends comes a long way in raising your awareness of important issues.
Think about the internet as you know it. You probably envision a collection of websites you visit frequently, such as Google, Wikipedia or Twitter. Our generation is generally familiar with all the things you can do with this revolutionary tool. But, what if that’s not all there is to it? What if there are functions that most people are not aware of? Enter the dark web.

The name dark web does a decent job at giving you an idea of what it is. On a literal sense, it’s a virtual space “hidden” underneath the regular internet. On a more figurative sense, its foreboding name aptly represents the type of content you can expect to find there. The dark web is a part of the World Wide Web inaccessible via common browsers like Google Chrome or Internet Explorer, and requires specific software — a Tor browser — to load.

The Onion Router (Tor) was a technology originally developed by the U.S. Navy and released in 2002. The project’s purpose, according to their website, was to allow “open source intelligence gathering,” given its anonymity capabilities. Nowadays, Tor is operated by a volunteer group with the goal of improving the internet’s security and privacy.

Simplifying things a bit, the Tor browser works by moving your traffic, or data about the sites you visit, through different Tor servers and encrypting it. Just like an onion, there’s many layers to peel to get to the source. This gives users the ability to surf the web anonymously, on a level above what’s possible with regular browsers. The anonymity provided by Tor is perhaps the dark web’s main attraction. Because content posted there is harder to track, users are able to engage in all sorts of activities — both good and bad.

The dark web has a reputation for being a den for criminals. This is in part true due to the popularity of black markets like The Silk Road, a virtual store where illegal services such as illegal drugs, hacking tools, and guns, are purchasable with the use of bitcoin, an untraceable form of currency. This is just a sample in a larger, more awful list of things that can be found in the corners of the internet.

Even though anonymity levels are higher with the use of Tor and the dark web, it is still not a 100 percent guarantee. The person behind The Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, was eventually captured and sentenced to life imprisonment. Recently, drug dealer Kyle Enos, who sold heroin to more than 100 customers — and might have caused four deaths because of it — was caught and sentenced to eight years in prison. Using Tor and entering the dark web is not illegal. However, being involved in immoral activities can result in investigation from the authorities.

Are there any positives with the use of this technology? While the bad might seem like it vastly outweighs the good, there are examples where Tor can be helpful for non-illegal reasons. With internet service providers and advertising agencies collecting your data, the use of privacy and anonymity software like Tor is a good way to protect your information. There’s also countries like China, which prohibit people from accessing many popular internet sites like Facebook. Tor could be used to bypass their firewall, allowing the public to see the content being blocked from them. Finally, law enforcement dives into the dark web to set up stint operations and catch criminals.

As any curious person would — and because the topic is tangentially related to my area of study — I’ve spent some time browsing the dark web. It’s a weird place that reminds me of how the internet looked at the beginning of the millennium. It’s ugly, disorganized and contains content that ranges from interesting to downright disturbing. The regular person might not see a purpose to ever visit it, and I’d agree. However, knowing of its existence might help us in understanding certain aspects of current internet-related topics we were previously unaware of.