The dark web continues to spread, but still in 2015 not a day goes by without a sensationalist article screaming about the horrors of a space apparently beyond the reach of investigators, where the most depraved parts of humanity reside.
The truth, naturally, is a lot more nuanced. While illicit marketplaces continue to garner attention, this year the dark web has also entered into another stage and gained recognition as a tool with legitimate purposes too.
Here's a wrap-up of what really went down on the dark web over the past 12 months.
Silk Road Continued to Hit Headlines
Over two years after the shutdown of the original dark web marketplace Silk Road, the site continues to make headlines.
In May, we saw the conclusion of the trial of Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of all seven counts against him, including narcotics conspiracy, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, and money laundering conspiracy. Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison for his role in Silk Road, although his defence is appealing the decision.
Ross Ulbricht. Image: FreeRoss.org
Meanwhile, Australian Silk Road forum moderator Peter Nash was freed after spending 18 months in a Manhattan prison. Two other alleged staff members are yet to receive any sentencing, with Gary Davis, accused of being administrator “Libertas,” still fighting extradition to the US from Ireland.
In perhaps the biggest dark web-related arrest of the year, Roger Thomas Clark, suspected of being the Dread Pirate Roberts’ right-hand man “Variety Jones,” was picked up in Thailand earlier this month. This came after Clark made a public reemergence on a cannabis enthusiast forum, and claimed that he wanted to hand himself over to the authorities. Clark is currently awaiting extradition.
Marketplaces Were Shaken Up
While the fallout of Silk Road continues, dozens of other marketplaces have sprung up to take its place. Many of those have sold additional items that were banned on Silk Road, such as guns and stolen data.
Dangerous goods such as weapons have started to disappear from the dark web's digital shelves
The two largest marketplaces jostling for supremacy—Evolution and Agora—both listed these goods before shutting down, in March and August respectively. Evolution vanished in an apparent scam; Agora went on a self-described “hiatus” but has yet to return.
More generally, dangerous goods such as weapons have started to disappear from the dark web's digital shelves. Before closing its doors, Agora stopped selling guns altogether, blaming the persistent presence of undercover law enforcement agents and the high number of scam artists claiming to sell these products. Another market, Nucleus, followed suit a few months later.
Stamps of Approval
But 2015 also highlighted that the dark web is not all about crime.
In September, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), labeled the .onion domain, which is used for hidden services, a “Special Use Domain.”
At the time, Runa Sandvik, a security researcher who has worked with the non-profit that maintains the Tor software, told Motherboard in an email that IETF and IANA “recognize that there are legitimate reasons to use the Tor anonymity network and its hidden services.”
Hidden services saw more positive praise this year when a hacker provided a mountain of files from a prison phone company to The Intercept. The dump relied on SecureDrop, a method for anonymously sending documents to journalists that takes advantage of Tor hidden services.
The dark web will be thrust even further into the spotlight as authorities and institutions recognise the range of applications the space offers
A Research Institute Helped the FBI Identify Tor Users
Finally, in a stark reminder that the anonymity protections awarded by Tor are not foolproof, details emerged that university researchers had provided the IP addresses of a number of Tor hidden services and their users to the FBI.
Court documents published in November detailed that a “university-based research institute” gave up this information, and evidence pointed to the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Experts already suspected that the SEI had been involved with an attack on Tor the previous year, largely because of a cancelled Black Hat talk on the topic. After news of a university's involvement started to spread, the Tor Project, the non-profit that maintains the Tor software, claimed the FBI had paid CMU researchers $1 million for the information.
The information is currently the key discovery evidence in at least two cases, that of a suspected Silk Road 2.0 staff member and an alleged pedophile. It appears that the attack on Tor also led to the identification of two Irish dark web drug dealers, who were jailed earlier this week. There’s little doubt that more relevant cases will come to light in 2016.
Over the coming year, it seems likely the dark web will be thrust even further into the spotlight as authorities, institutions, and individuals become aware of the range of applications the space has to offer. Although it is still commonly associated with crime, the dark web also remains a place for activists, journalists and others wishing to preserve their privacy. As it continues to evolve and gain increasing recognition, perhaps we'll see more of that.