Dark Web
31 Mar 2020

The Dark Web – Whatever Happened to It?

The Dark Web is a controversial topic that is shrouded in mystery for many regular Internet users. Portrayed in the media as a seedy underground virtual reality where cybercriminals roam free and peddle their illicit wares, this encrypted network has been a newsworthy subject since its rise to infamy during the last decade. Although the Dark Web may appear to be a prohibited playground hosting illegal products and services, one cannot ignore its use in the fight for online privacy. As the layers of encrypted traffic on this network guards users from the prying eyes of surveillance, individuals in parts of the world where freedom is not an absolute right, leverage its anonymity to communicate. However, in recent times news articles related to the Dark Web have become less frequent. Does this lack of media coverage convey that this network is disappearing, or has it merely lost its newsworthy luster?

The History of the Dark Web

Even though the profile and existence of the Dark Web rose to prominence a few years ago, the technology itself was created by the US military and released publicly in the mid-1990s. However, another project launched in March of 2000, aptly named Freenet, is also seen as a pivotal moment in the use of this service. The Onion Browser developed by DARPA and the US Navy in the 1990s is the most popular medium to access the encrypted recesses of the Dark Web. The Naval Research Laboratory released the code in 2004 with the Tor Project, a non-profit organization, subsequently taking over the management of this software.

How It Works

Encryption lies at the heart of the Dark Web. All traffic on this ‘network within a network’ is encrypted and routed through various nodes. As traffic passes through each node, an additional layer of encryption is added, like the layers of an onion. This layered encryption architecture lends its name to the Tor project and Onion browser. The Onion Router (TOR) is an acronym for the technology that describes this layered encryption approach. Due to the technology used by services on the Dark Web, access to this network requires a preconfigured browser. As you need to connect to a node on the Dark Web to access it, you cannot use a standard browser. 

How Did Law Enforcement Fracture the Anonymity of the Dark Web?

Since its public release in 2004, the Onion Browser catapulted the use of the Dark Web, raising its prominence in both media and popular culture. However, it was the Silk Road marketplace that allowed users to trade illicit goods and services that stamped the badge of infamy on this hidden network. Launched in February 2011 with the rise of Bitcoin as its primary currency and subsequently shut down by the FBI in October 2013, the Silk Road was the first modern Dark Web market. With the arrest of its operator and the ensuing publicity of his trial where he was handed down a double life sentence for several felonies, the general public realized the scale of the black market activities perpetrated by cybercriminals on the darker recesses of the Internet.

With so many layers of encryption almost guaranteeing anonymity, one would think that it would be impossible to track and trace illicit operations on the Dark Web. However, with the destruction of the Silk Road marketplace, law enforcement agencies demonstrated that the layered encryption of this network is not infallible. As the Tor Network consists of thousands of nodes hosted by its community, the distributed nature of this network increases a user’s anonymity but also introduces potential vulnerabilities. For example, if you host a Tor exit node, you can view the unencrypted traffic that flows through it.

When law enforcement took down the Silk Road marketplace and over 400 other black-market hidden sites in 2013, it most likely had a foothold in several nodes across the Tor network. Due to its architecture, if you have enough control over this encrypted network, you can obtain an overarching view of the traffic that runs through it. By leveraging a strategy of compromising vulnerable nodes with poor security, and infiltrating the network with nodes that you control, you can pierce its veil of anonymity.

Research conducted in 2017 indicated that the Dark Web was crumbling. Of the over 30,000 Dark Web sites listed at the time, just under 15% remained active. Since then, the Dark Web has been a shadow of its former self and has had its fair share of controversy. In 2019, Dream Market, an alleged successor to the Silk Road, was shut down.

Due to its depiction as an illicit network, law enforcement targets and monitors the Dark Web continuously. Even though its original mission is to safeguard the privacy and anonymity of Internet users. With its criminal infrastructure attacked and its internal services and user base diminishing, the trade for illicit goods and services may well have moved to the Deep Web.

What is the Deep Web?

The terms Dark Web and Deep Web are often confused. In some instances, the media and society use these names interchangeably. However, there is a distinct difference between the two. The Dark Web refers to the part of the Internet that is encrypted and only accessed with a preconfigured browser or connection. The Deep Web refers to the part of the Internet that is not indexed by Search Engines and makes up the vast majority of sites and services. Company Intranets, sites that require user authentication before granting access, and APIs are all examples of services that live on the Deep Web. You can access these sites using a regular browser. However, you will need to know the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) and have the necessary credentials should the site control entry with some form of identity and access management.

Does the Dark Web Still Exist?

The Dark Web still exists. Criminal activities continue to take place, but with constant surveillance, cybercriminals are using sites on the Deep Web hidden by the obscurity of a URL, username, and password you can only receive after being vetted in some way. However, the Dark Web’s original purpose still has a part to play in today’s society. Citizens in nations that have restricted freedoms can continue to use the privacy of this encrypted network to communicate. As far as criminal activity goes, we may well see an exclusive Dark Web utilizing newer encryption protocols that limit the prying eyes of contemporary law enforcement technologies.