Google can't take you to the “Dark Web,” but is it really a lurking underworld menace?

By Sam Bieler and Debbie Mayer :: February 21st, 2014

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Beyond Google’s reach lies a part of the World Wide Web invisible to the casual net searcher: the Deep Web.

The Deep Web is vast, 400 to 550 times larger than the surface web. Most of it is innocuous—the contents of email inboxes, company intranets, and searches on websites like eBay or Amazon that exist online, but cannot be accessed via search engines. However, a subset of the Deep Web consists of sites that are intentionally hidden and may require sophisticated encryption techniques to access. This hidden internet has gained notoriety as a haven for drugs and illegal pornography and a place for contract killers and drug dealers to ply their trade. It has even acquired a name to match its sinister reputation: the Dark Web.

The Dark Web entered the public spotlight with the rise of the website Silk Road. Operating relatively openly on Tor, a Dark Web network, Silk Road was an online black market, known primarily for facilitating drug purchases until its demise in October 2013.

Since then, the Dark Web has grown in the public consciousness. The Netflix hit House of Cards saw journalists attempting to use Tor on the “Deep Web” to hack phone records. By referring to Tor as the Deep Web, rather than distinguishing it more accurately as the Dark Web, House of Cards perfectly illustrates the public’s confusion about these concepts.

This confusion exists because Dark Web research is inherently challenging. While researchers are beginning to develop more data on prominent sites like Silk Road, the Dark Web is designed to promote anonymity, making it difficult to determine the scope or nature of illegal activities taking place.

In the absence of sound research, misinformation has run rampant. Wild claims about the kind of services readily accessible through sites like Silk Road include guns, hitmen, and forcible medical experiments. Many of these claims are pure fiction: Silk Road maintained a list of items banned for sale (including guns and child pornography), which appears to have been largely respected.

Perfect anonymity is another Dark Web myth. Silk Road’s founder and a Harvard student who called in a bomb threat both learned that determined law enforcement can trace Dark Web users.

While all criminal justice topics have their share of hyperbole and misunderstanding, the fact that there is so little research and so much misinformation on Dark Web crime makes it difficult to identify the actual law enforcement challenges the Dark Web poses. If we are going to address Dark Web crime effectively, the first step must be a dedicated research effort that provides us with answers in three areas:

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Volume: How large is the illegal market operating on the Dark Web? This information is key to understanding and contextualizing the scope of the online drug market problem. For example, Silk Road’s $1.9 million in monthly revenue (~$22 million annually) from a worldwide market sounds like a thriving black market, until you realize that a single Chicago neighborhood might see $10–20 million in cocaine sales alone. So law enforcement may ask if Dark Web drug policing is the best use of resources.

deepweb-03Products: What can you buy on the Dark Web? Drugs are widely available and other Dark Web sites provide access to child pornography, but it’s an open question as to whether more esoteric services like hitmen actually exist. No legitimate evidence has ever been found of many of these services. Properly prioritizing Dark Web law enforcement activities means determining if it is really facilitating a new, more efficient criminal market, or if it is simply a smaller-scale outlet for items criminals could already get fairly easily elsewhere.

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People: Who’s using the Dark Web? With the Dark Web’s sinister name and reputation, it’s easy to forget that hidden networks can be a vital tool for political dissidents in repressive countries. Tor even receives significant US Department of Defense support. Understanding the user base before launching aggressive enforcement efforts will be important if US foreign and domestic agencies don’t want to become a circular firing line, with one agency disassembling the Dark Web as fast as another supports it. Alternatively, Dark Web enforcement may become more attractive if it leads to the targeting of more sophisticated criminals than could be captured through conventional law enforcement operations.

Developing policy without answering these questions risks letting overreaction and misinformation squander scarce law enforcement resources on a topic that may generate more hysteria than crime.

Illustrations by Daniel Wolfe of the Urban Institute.

Follow Sam Bieler (@sdbieler) on Twitter.

5Comments

  1. joannapaul  ::  8:23 am on April 14th, 2014:

    Deep web can bring to spotlight what search engines cant display or retrieve. But this deep web scaling more towards the darkest side needs to be cautioned of.

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  5. NJ Devil  ::  1:33 am on November 21st, 2014:

    The “dark” web is nothing new. Even early BBS in the 80′s had back doors allowing hackers/phreakers/ and pirates to share secrets, form groups, trade warez, and educate the ones who wanted to know more…