THE ‘DARK WEB’ may be close to becoming a household name. After the conviction of Ross Ulbricht, the owner of the drug marketplace Silk Road, and a stream of articles claiming that the Islamic State is using secret websites to plan out attacks, this hidden part of the Internet is being talked about more than ever.
But for the most part, the story you’ve been sold about the dark web is a myth.
I know this because I’ve been there. Since 2013, I’ve interviewed the staff of drug marketplaces about their paid DEA double-agents, tracked how technologically sophisticated pedophiles cover up their tracks, and also discovered that active Uber accounts were being sold on the dark web for as little as a dollar each. I’ve also learned that the real story is not at all the one you commonly hear—the tale of a gigantic space below our usual web, where hard-to-find vices are traded among sordid individuals totally beyond the grasp of the authorities. That is not what the dark web is.
The Rest of the Web Is Just as ‘Dark’
Read nearly any article about the dark web, and you’ll get the sense that its name connotes not just its secrecy but also the low-down dirty content of its shadowy realms. You’ll be told that it is home to several nefarious things: stolen data, terrorist sites, and child porn. Now while those things may be among what’s available on the dark web, all also are available on the normal web, and are easily accessible to anyone, right now, without the need for any fancy encryption software.
For years there have been sites where you can instantly buy a stranger’s Social Security Number, date of birth, full name, address and phone number for under a dollar, or others that host reams of stolen credit card details, ripe for a fraudulent spending spree.
Terrorist forums are also hiding in full view of anyone with an Internet connection. Regular websites allow extremist supporters and prominent jihadis alike to communicate with one another and post brutal propaganda videos. Al Qaeda’s first forum was launched way back in 2001, and although that site was shut down, a handful of other violent Islamic extremist sites continue to exist on the normal web and are used heavily today. Shutting these sites down is “like a game of whack-a-mole,” Evan Kohlmann from Flashpoint, an intelligence company, told me last year.
Despite reports, there are only shreds of evidence that the Islamic State is using the dark web. One apparent fund-raising site highlighted by the Washington Posthad managed to garner exactly 0 bitcoins at the time of writing, and this was also the case with another I discovered recently. It’s worth pointing out that both of those sites simply claimed to be funneling the cash to the terrorist group, and could easily have been fakes. The one Islamic extremist dark web site to actually generate any revenue mustered only $1,200earlier this year. Even it doesn’t explicitly mention the Islamic State.
And yes, child porn is accessible on the normal web. In fact, it is rampant when compared with what’s available from hidden sites. Last year, the Internet Watch Foundation, a charity that collates child sexual abuse websites and works with law enforcement and hosting providers to have the content removed, found31,266 URLs that contained child porn images. Of those URLs, only 51 of them, or 0.2 percent, were hosted on the dark web.
It’s More Like a Dark Nook
What we call the dark web is tiny. The World Wide Web has swelled to over a billion different sites, while current estimations put the number of Tor hidden sites at between 7000 and 30,000, depending on what methodology you follow. That’s 0.03 percent of the normal web. Barely a fraction of content available elsewhere. The collection of all these hidden sites is not, as is commonly spouted by governments and many members of the media, several orders of magnitude larger than the normal web.
It’s not clear how many people access the dark web on a daily basis, but there’s the impression that it’s a small number of individuals. The Tor Project claims that only 1.5 percent of overall traffic on its anonymity network is to do with hidden sites, and that 2 million people per day use Tor in total. In short, the number of people visiting the dark web is a fraction of overall Tor users, the majority of whom are likely just using it to protect their regular browsing habits. Not only are dark web visitors a drop in the bucket of Tor users, they are a spec of dust in the galaxy of total Internet users.
It’s Not Impenetrable
Finally, the dark web is not some zone beyond the reach of law enforcement. Although Ross Ulbricht is the most famous dark web personality to get busted, he is far from the only one. Over 300 dark-web-affiliated people have been arrested since 2011, according to independent researcher Gwern Branwen. Dealers of drugs and guns, people who order illegal narcotics, and the staff and administrators of sites have all been successfully apprehended by police. However, this number should be considered as the “lower-limit” Branwen previously told me, because it only includes those arrests that are related specifically to the dark web markets and which are publicly known.
The people who run child abuse websites or produce illegal material are also being caught. In October 2014, a Brazilian dark web pedophile site was seized, and 55 people arrested. Then just last month Australian police went public about an operation that had shut down one of the largest child abuse sites in existence. Just like in the physical world, it turns out that some traditional police tactics, such as going undercover, are incredibly effective against criminals on the dark web.
So What the Hell Is the Dark Web?
Of course, there is a technological space called the dark web, where the servers of websites are hidden behind a veil of cryptography, and users also enjoy strong anonymity protections. But that space is nothing like the fairy tale that has been concocted around it; that of a colossal ocean of digital stores selling exclusive products, where criminals are free from prosecution. That characterization is not true.
Instead, the dark web is a small collection of sites that reflect the limited number of good, bad, and downright weird humans that use it. Doctors can give impartial advice to drug users, who come out of the woodwork because of the anonymity awarded to them by Tor; Chinese citizens can discuss whatever they like and circumvent The Great Firewall, and, yes, the dark web is also used to host some seriously depraved sites, such as extreme pornography. At the moment, the space is probably used mostly for criminal purposes, but its relevance to the world of cybercrime and other domains has been grossly exaggerated.
Looking beyond the scaremongering, however, the dark web actually has promise. In essence, it’s the World Wide Web as it was originally envisioned: a space beyond the control of individual states, where ideas can be exchanged freely without fear of being censored. As countries continue to crack down on the web, its dark counterpart is only going to become more relevant as a place to discuss and connect with each other. We shouldn’t let the myth of the dark web ruin that potential.