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What is Dark Web and how to safely access it?

by DEEPAK SETHI 6 months ago in cybersecurity

The function of the dark web and its monitoring.

Photo courtesy Pixabay.

The dark web is the World Wide Web that exists on the internet but requires specific software, configurations, or authorization to access. The dark web forms part of the deep web which is not indexed by the web search engines. Through the dark web, private computer networks can communicate and conduct business without giving information, like a user’s location.

The dark web is often confused and mixed with the deep web. The dark web forms a part of the deep web but requires custom software to access its content. The darknets which constitute the dark web include small peer-to-peer networks and also large popular networks such as Tor, I2P, Freenet, and Riffle operated by public organizations and individuals.

Some of the examples of the deep web are medical records, fee-based content, and confidential corporate web pages. Estimates place the size of the deep web at 95% of the internet. Only a small portion of the internet is accessible through a standard web browser called the clear web. The dark web occupies about 5% of the total internet.

Darknet websites are accessible only through networks such as Tor or I2P (Invisible Internet Project). Tor Browser can be identified by the domain name ‘. Onion’. Tor focuses on providing anonymous access to the internet while I2P specializes in allowing anonymous hosting of websites.

The identity and location of a darknet user stay anonymous and can’t be tracked due to the layered encryption. Darknet encryption routes user’s data through a large number of servers which protects the user’s identity and provides anonymity.

The work of navigating the dark web is not easy. The place is messy where everyone is anonymous and a few people are out to scam others. The Tor browser routes your web page through many proxy servers operated by thousands of volunteers across the globe, making your IP address unidentifiable and untraceable. The result is unpredictable and very slow. Dark web search engines exist but even the best find it difficult to keep up with the changes and often resemble searching the web in the 1990s.

Dark web sites appear like any other site but there is a difference in the naming structure. Instead of ending in ‘.com’ or ‘.co’ they end in ‘.onion.’ Dark web sites use a scrambled naming structure which creates URLs that are difficult to remember.

Several dark websites are set up by scammers who constantly move around to avoid their victims. There may be commerce sites that may have existed a year back but can suddenly disappear if the owners decide to flee with the money of the customers.

Use of darknet

In 2014, the most commonly hosted content on Tor was child pornography followed by black markets and the individual sites were dedicated to botnet operations. The other sites available were whistleblower sites, discussion forums, and mail order and Bitcoin fraud-related services. The breakdown of the content in 2016 was as follows:

Botnets

Botnets create a large amount of bot-related traffic and are structured with their command and control.

Bitcoin services

Bitcoin services such as tumblers are available on Tor which was used for money laundering purposes. People can hide their intentions and identity with Bitcoin. The most common approach was to use a digital currency exchange service that converted Bitcoin into an online game currency that was later converted into money.

illegal drugs in darknet markets

Some markets mediate transactions for illegal drugs with the most popular being Silk Road which was pounded by authorities. A study conducted found that the concealment methods and shipping country were accurate but the drug purity was found to be different from the information available on the listing.

Hacking services

Many hackers sell their services either individually or as groups. The groups are Trojanforge, hack forum, and TheRealDeal. They even track and extort pedophiles. Hacking services for financial institutions and banks have been offered over the web. There are many scam sites also present which give tools for download, that are infected with trojan horses or backdoors.

Fraud services

There are many Paypal and Bitcoin trading websites and some offering fraud and counterfeiting services. Many sites are scams themselves.

Hoaxes

There are services of crowd-funded assassinations and hitmen for hire but they are believed to be scams. The creator of Silk Road was arrested for his site and action of hiring a hitman to kill six people but the charges were later dropped.

Phishing sites

There are many Phishing and other scam-related sites.

illegal Pornography

Action is often initiated against sites distributing pornography often by tracking users' IP addresses. Other content available is sexualized torture of animals and revenge porn.

Terrorism

There are some real and fraudulent sites claiming to be used by ISIS. The Rawti Shax Islamist terrorist group was once found to be operating on the dark web. The increased use of technology has allowed cyber-terrorists to flourish making good use of the weakness of technology.

Social media Platforms

Social media platforms are emerging on the dark web as in the World Wide Web.

As of December 2020, the number of active Tor sites in ‘.onion’ was estimated at 76,300. A study has found that the most prevalent functions facilitate communications via forums, chat rooms as well as commerce through marketplaces. About 400 of the randomly selected .onion sites suggested that over half of the domains on the dark web were legal.

Advantages of the dark web

Despite all the disadvantages mentioned above, there are some advantages of the dark web as well. Many oppressive regimes in the world block large parts of the internet or punish political dissent. There the dark web provides information and protection from persecution. In free societies, it can help as a whistle-blowing and communication tool that shields people from retribution in the workplace. It also offers privacy to those people who are wary of how corporations and governments are tracking and monetizing their data.

Many organizations nowadays maintain a hidden website on Tor; all the major newspapers, Facebook, and also US Central Intelligence Agency, as Tor website demonstrates a commitment to privacy.

The pairing of the dark web with cryptocurrencies has led to expectations of a boom in crime. In the last few years, the combination of encrypted networks hidden from most of the world and a currency that is nearly untrackable by law enforcement officials has resulted in a significant marketplace of vendors selling illegal wares. The illicit transactions on the dark web are much smaller as compared to global illicit commerce. Bitcoin transaction on the dark web grew from $250 million in 2012 to approx. 1 billion in 2020.

There is a challenge for regulators and law enforcement agencies. Protecting political dissidents, privacy advocates and whistle-blowers should not come at the expense of arms traffickers, child abusers, and drug sellers and they have to draw a fine line of protecting liberal principles at the same time eradicating harmful activities on the dark web.

During the past few years, the international community has made great progress in addressing these challenges by greater information sharing, enhancing technical abilities to crack down on illicit marketplaces, and regulating cryptocurrency transfers. The global nature of the dark web makes international cooperation imperative. In 2018–19 Interpol and European Union brought together law enforcement agencies from 19 countries to share operational information necessary for enforcement.

The growth of dark web transactions has made many governments concerned and they have tried to disrupt the illegal activities by improving the capabilities of law enforcement agencies like the US FBI. The first action by the FBI was the takedown of the ‘Silk Road 2.0’ website and investigations revealed that during its two and half years of existence the site had been used by thousands of drug dealers to distribute hundreds of kilograms of drugs worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Alphabay and Hansa market the two successors of Silk Road were shut in 2017.

All the while disrupting the illicit operations on the dark web, the governments, and international institutions are trying to regulate the cryptocurrencies that aid the dark web marketplaces. The ecosystem of exchange wallets and other cryptocurrencies does not have the infrastructure to adopt financial sector-like standards but somewhere the groundwork has to be done for enhancing security.

The authoritarian regimes will try to block access of people to the dark web to contain the dissidents and the liberal societies will continue to maintain that Tor remains unmonitored for free expression. The law enforcement agencies have to find a way in between to contain the illegal activities and at the same time letting run an anonymous network.

cybersecurity

DEEPAK SETHI

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