Dark net: what lurks beneath the surface of the internet?
Tens of thousands of paedophiles are using the hidden web to share images of sexual abuse
The 'dark net' is being used by tens of thousands of paedophiles to anonymously trade images of sexual abuse, according to a BBC investigation. One site receives as many as 500 page views per second, while data from another site suggests that Britons are heavily involved in producing and distributing obscene images of children. But what exactly is the dark net and is it only for criminals?
What is the dark net?
The dark net, or hidden web, refers to part of the internet that cannot be found using Google or other regular search engines. It is inaccessible without a special software product, one of the most popular of which is Tor (The Onion Router). Tor provides the closest thing to anonymity on the internet, making a PC's net address untraceable. It encrypts data sent across the internet in multiple layers, like an onion, and then sends that data through multiple relays, each one of which peels off a layer, before the data reaches its destination.
What are the dangers of the dark net?
As the BBC investigation shows, the anonymity of the dark net is open to exploitation by criminals. In October last year the notorious dark net website Silk Road was taken offline and its alleged owner was arrested by the FBI. The site allowed visitors to buy illegal drugs, fake IDs and firearms, trade tips on how to hack computers and ATMs, and even allowed users to hire assassins. The UK's National Crime Agency predicts that the use of the hidden web for sharing indecent images of children and for trading firearms will increase over the next few years.
It is always used for criminal activity? No. Tor was initially funded by the US government and is often used by pro-democracy campaigners, whistleblowers and journalists operating under repressive regimes. For example, it was used by activists during the Arab Spring to avoid detection and by Chinese citizens to get around the country's "Great Firewall". The people behind Tor insist it is necessary to protect innocent users from crimes such as identity theft and stalking. In particular, it has been hailed as a safe place for victims of domestic abuse to seek support without detection from their attackers.
Can it be cracked? The threat posed by the dark net has been recognised by governments around the world, but none appear have found a steadfast way to get around the system. Some security specialists believe there are innovative ways to unmask the users of paedophile sites, says the BBC, such as using complex algorithms to mine dark net chat rooms for data. However, this relies on the user revealing a certain amount of information. Whistleblower Edward Snowden – who used encryption software to leak classified documents to The Guardian and Washington Post – revealed the US National Security Agency's frustrations with the dark net. In one top-secret presentation, entitled Tor Stinks, the NSA said: "We will never be able to de-anonymise all Tor users all the time" but "with manual analysis we can de-anonymise a very small fraction". The people behind Tor insist that its key role in facilitating free speech, privacy and protection for victims outweighs the argument to build a "backdoor" into the system for law enforcement agencies. Ironically, the revelations showing how NSA and GCHQ snoop on their own citizens is likely to have driven more people to Tor, with hits to its download page almost quadrupling last year to 139 million.