Problem: The Government Still Doesn't Understand the Dark Web

How can a proportionate response be made if governments are repeatedly misreporting the problem?

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Mar 12 2015, 4:00pm

​Image: ​anthi tzakou/Flickr

​For the last time, the deep web is not the dark web. Although Tor, hidden service sites and anonymity technology in general are being used more widely than ever, some dangerous misconceptions are being repeatedly spread. In the latest case, the UK government has conflated the two terms, reducing the chance for any rational, thought-out policy on how to tackle dark web crime to be made.

Today, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), a body of the government that watches over the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), released a report on the country's surveillance practices.

In the report, the ISC said that the legal framework related to surveillance is "unnecessarily complicated" and "lacks transparency," reported the BBC. However, the committee also stated that the intelligence and security services "do not seek to circumvent the law," nor do GCHQ's practices constitute "blanket surveillance."

Civil rights campaigners strongly disagree. "The ISC's report should trouble every single person who uses a computer or mobile phone: it describes in great detail how the security services are intercepting billions of communications each day and interrogating those communications against thousands of selection fields," Privacy International said in a forwarded statement.

How can a proportionate response be made if governments are repeatedly misreporting the problem?

Elsewhere in the report is a serious mistake when it comes to defining "the dark web." As pointed out in a tweet from independent privacy researcher Caspar Bowden, the ISC appears to mix the "dark web" up with the "deep web," a distinction that has large ramifications for how the government approaches internet policy.

In a section that states "As a result of the Snowden allegations, technology companies have improved privacy protections and strengthened the encryption offered to their customer," there's an easy to overlook footnote.

"In addition to the action of technology companies, some individuals have also deliberately moved their communications to the 'Dark Web,'" it reads. "This is not indexed by ordinary search engines and can only be accessed anonymously through software such as 'The Onion Router' (TOR)."

It continues, "Some estimates claim that the 'dark' internet may be several orders of magnitude larger than the 'public' internet," and then mentions that it is used both by activists and journalists, as well as those who profit from it for selling drugs or distributing child porn.

This definition of the dark web, for the record, is false.

The deep web consists of all the webpages that aren't indexed by normal search engines. These pages might not turn up in Google for a variety of reasons: perhaps they are hosted on a private network (such as those that require a login); or they are only created when a user requests them directly (these are also called 'dynamic' webpages). And although some have predicted that the deep web is much, much larger than the 'surface' web we all interact with everyday, lots of this stuff is actually very boring, such as corporate databases.

The dark web, on the other hand, is the collection of websites that can't be reached with normal web browsers. The drug marketplace Silk Road is the most well known example, while others act as gateways for whistleblowers to provide journalists with documents.

These sites typically end in a different suffix to the standard .com. Tor hidden services end in .onion, whereas I2P sites, or 'eepsites' as they are called, end with .I2P. According to one list of Tor hidden services shared with me, over 2500 exist, although some of these sites often come and go, and, again, don't contain anything very interesting at all.

But in the ISC's eyes, this dark web, where child porn and the really dark side of society resides, is several orders of magnitude larger than the surface web, and that's just wrong.

Technically, it is not inaccurate to say that Silk Road, for example, belonged both to the deep web and the dark web. The dark web is, simply put, a very small part of the broader deep web. But the ISC takes an approximate size of the deep web and erroneously applies it to its dark counterpart.

Another distinction worth pointing out, without going down a linguistic rabbit hole, is the idea of dark nets. These computers are, arguably, a separate piece of infrastructure from the normal internet. I2P is one, and the nodes that make up the Tor network are another. Whereas the dark web is the content, the dark net is the foundations.

Anyway, this certainly isn't the first time a government body has got their facts about Tor or the dark web wrong.

In December, a study from the University of Portsmouth found that 80 percent of Tor hidden service visits, those sites ending in .onion, were related to child porn. There were several caveats with that study; law enforcement bodies, which reportedly crawl the sites in a constant search for new child porn content, may have skewered the results.​

Regardless, some in the US government took the results as a clear sign that Tor was totally overrun with child abuse material.

"Tor obviously was created with good intentions, but it's a huge problem for law enforcement," Leslie Caldwell, an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, said during an interview as part of the annual State of Net Conference in January. "There are a lot of online supermarkets where you can do anything from purchase heroin to buy guns to hire somebody to kill somebody, there are murder for hire sites. We understand 80 percent of traffic on the Tor network involves child pornography."

As Wired highlighted at the time, that claim was false, and didn't reflect the findings of the study, nor the actual state of Tor hidden services at all. In fact, Tor Executive Director Roger Dingledine pointed out that only 2 percent of Tor traffic was related to hidden services, meaning that 80 percent of that 2 percent was to do with child porn.

All of this isn't just pointless word games, either. If misconceptions about the dark web continue to spread, this will undoubtedly lead to ill informed policies.

Just this week, the EU Parliament made the recommendation that "new high-tech capabilities should be developed" to tackle child porn on the dark web. As horrific as the problem of online child abuse is, how can a proportionate response be made—one that won't ruin the space for the activists, journalists and other people that use it—if governments are repeatedly misreporting the problem?