The Darknet, cyber secrets and concealing identity

The Darknet, cyber secrets and concealing identity

There has been a lot of publicity recently concerning the illegal use of the Internet. “Darknet” market sites such as Silk Road, Silk Road 2.0, Silk Road 3.0 and Silk Road Reloaded have been brought down or targeted by the law enforcement authorities. What is Darknet, why does it exist, and why are its sites often associated with the ancient Silk Road?

The Internet might be compared to an iceberg, where the top one-third is out of water and clearly seen, while the remaining two-thirds are submerged. The top, visible portion of the Internet is known as the “open web.” Our search engines, such as Google and Firefox, have indexes to its sites and can lead us across the open network. For most of us, the open web is the Internet. However, the vast majority of Internet web pages are invisible to most Internet users.

The remaining two thirds of the Internet sites are “submerged,” or concealed. These concealed segments are known as the “Deep Web” and the “Dark Web,” or the “Darknet.” They are accessible, but hidden from most users. These layers have been developed by technologies that allow Internet users to have anonymity on the web. They legitimately help individuals and companies to protect their security and privacy, and in many cases serve to protect users from censorship.

The majority of pages residing in these layers are personal or corporate pages, administrative databases, or personal photo collections. Only a very small portion of the sites in Deep Web use sophisticated anony-mity systems, allowing operators to conceal identities and operate criminal activities.

While there are many legitimate reasons an Internet user would wish to hide their identity, a majority of those who do so take simple measures such as using pseudo-nyms on social media sites, clearing the web browser history from their computer after use, or using unsophisticated encryption methods.

Users who do not use some type of anonymity protecting measure should be aware of how easily online activities can be tracked and identities revealed. Websites and emails can be monitored and, unless encrypted, reveal vital information that violates user privacy.

Anonymity on the open web: Before a device can use the Internet as a highway for information, it requires an Internet Protocol address, or IP address, which can be recorded and often linked to individual users. However, some routers use Network Address Translation protocol, or NAT to assign a single IP address to the router and mask the multiple, individual devices on a particular local area network (LAN). If you use a wireless router to connect your devices, you are probably using this technique.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) provide anonymity and protection by “tunnelling” and encryption. Tunnelling establishes a “covered” communication network route which isolates the transmission.

When penetrated, it redirects and re-establishes the tunnel along another line of communication. Should the message be intercepted, it is also encrypted so the interloper will be unable to read the contents of the transmission. The disadvantage of the VPN is that a single entity (the provider of the service) has access to the identity of all users and their communication partners.

The other, more robust anonymity systems offer stronger protection. The most popular anonymity system is known as “Tor.” Originally developed as a research project in 1995, Tor became operational in 2003 and has been maintained and improved by Tor Project Inc. Tor conceals a user’s data within the Tor network, hiding the user’s IP address and other identifiers from the websites they visit, thereby disguising the users’ online activities.

Internet communication

Anyone monitoring Internet communication will find it extremely difficult to trace these activities back to a specific user. Tor’s popularity stems from its ease of use, as one does not need a detailed knowledge of computers to use the system.

Tor’s benefits enable anonymous use of the open web using the Tor browser, and anonymous publishing of web services as part of the Tor Hidden Services.

Tor enables users to access the open web and circumvent censorship, anonymously participate in activism and journalism, provide undercover online surveillance of specific websites, protect personal security and privacy, and anonymously conduct peer-to-peer file sharing.

Delving deeper on to the Darknet, users link to Tor/onion sites, which are part of the Tor Hidden Services (THS) network. Because THS addresses end with “.onion” rather than traditional “” addresses, they are commonly referred to as “onion addresses.” The THS sites are not indexed by common search engines, such as Google and Bing, making them more difficult to locate. There is no central recording of existing THS sites and not all THS addresses are published.

Where the Darknet really becomes black: While a large portion of Tor users are conducting legitimate business, anonymity on the dark side does lead to an increased potential for criminal activities. These activities include criminal marketplaces for drugs, child pornography, terrorism and other nefarious activities. The most prominent hidden marketplace on Tor was Silk Road.

The site enabled users to buy and sell illegal drugs and commodities. Silk Road was active from February 2011 until July 2013, where the site processed over $1.2 billion worth of illegal sales between 4,000 vendors and over 1,50,000 customers. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation took down the site in October 2013, although several other illegal sites have since taken its place.

Can we/should we block access to these sites? The long-standing public debate concerning online anonymity centres around the rights of individual citizens to be anonymous online, thereby protecting their freedom of speech and other individual freedoms or whether total anonymity leads to unethical and criminal behaviour.

Most governments agree that banning online anonymity systems completely is not an acceptable solution. China attempted to do so, only to discover that dissidents were using secret entrance nodes to the Tor network called “bridges” to continue their acti-vities. Is the Internet our modern Silk Road?

(Iyengar is a distinguished Ryder Professor and Director, School of Computing and Information Sciences, Miami; Miller has been with US Air Force for over two decades and is Coordinator, Discovery Lab, Florida International University)

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