The Internet’s dirty secret

The most famous hacktivist collective is Anonymous, which lacks clear leadership, a cohesive organizational structure and a definitive ideology. Here, members of Anonymous in Los Angeles sport Guy Fawkes masks. (Photo: Vincent Diamante)

The most famous hacktivist collective is Anonymous, which lacks clear leadership, a cohesive organizational structure and a definitive ideology. Here, members of Anonymous in Los Angeles sport Guy Fawkes masks. (Photo: Vincent Diamante)

Most of us couldn’t live without the Internet. It has become an extension of our daily lives, putting us in touch with family and friends through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It is where we go for news and other media content. It is also increasingly our main source of entertainment, thanks to streaming sites such as YouTube and Netflix.
But the Internet is a lot more than that. It is the hidden wiring of the global economy, or the infrastructure beneath all other infrastructures, generating major economic benefits, improving productivity, streamlining production and consumption and reducing the costs of doing business. Banks rely on the Internet to do business. So do major corporations. Smaller and medium-sized enterprises are also turning to the Internet to sell their goods and services around the world. The day has arrived when our cars, refrigerators and even our toothbrushes can be hooked up to the Internet. It’s what some now refer to as the Internet of Things or Internet of Everything.
PREVENTION_6-28-2016_0010But the Internet, like any other tool,  also draws those who would use it for more malicious purposes. Increasingly, this nefarious activity clusters on a portion of the Internet known colloquially as the “Dark Web.” The Dark Web exists because of a bit of technological trickery that bounces a person’s Internet signal around the world in order to mask the user’s identity. In other words, the Dark Web is “dark” because everything people do there is done anonymously. It is the ultimate “cloaking device” to which any Star Trek fan can easily relate.
Anonymity can be a lifesaver, especially for political dissidents and human rights activists in highly repressive regimes, but it can just as easily be used as cover by those who are up to no good, hiding a person’s illicit or outright illegal activity from those responsible for enforcing the law.
All kinds of bad things happen on the Dark Web. One of the most common forms of Dark Web website is illegal marketplaces. These sites sell everything from drugs and guns to the services of hackers and assassins. Drug markets, such as the “Silk Road” or “Evolution,” spring up with troubling regularity, while one hitman-for-hire site advertises the going rate to have a regular person crippled at $12,000 and offers a price of $36,000 to have an underage family member raped.
Efforts to measure how people actually use the Dark Web suggest that much of the proverbial traffic on the hidden underbelly of the Internet tends to gather on sites dedicated to the production, dissemination and viewership of child-abuse imagery. In fact, while child-abuse sites make up only about two percent of Dark Web websites, upwards of 80 percent of traffic actually goes to these sites. For example, Playpen, a child-abuse site that was taken down by the FBI in August 2014, reportedly had upwards of 215,000 members, hosted more than 117,000 posts and received an average of 11,000 unique visitors each week.
When faced with these sorts of abuses of online anonymity, many people around the world immediately think that the Dark Web should be shut down. A survey jointly conducted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Ipsos earlier this year found that opinion was strongest (78 percent) in India, China and Brazil and lowest in rights-respecting Europe (69 percent) and the Middle East and Africa (69 percent), where a long history of repression makes anonymity an important political right. Given many of the reprehensible uses to which the Dark Web can be put, it is no surprise that many people have an instinctive reaction against the anonymous network.
But things get more confusing when people are asked their opinion about hacktivists, who use many of the same technological tricks that create the Dark Web to undertake their own online chicanery.
The most famous hacktivist collective is Anonymous, which lacks clear leadership, a cohesive organizational structure and a definitive ideology. Anonymous’s identity is far from clear — or even singular for that matter. Nevertheless, the group has gradually morphed from a rough collective of people out to play pranks online to what almost resembles a group of social justice warriors, much like those Green Berets who used to ride the New York subway system, who stride boldly into political conflicts around the world (as in Tunisia during the Arab Spring), target Dark Web child abuse rings (as with the Freedom Hosting hack) and seek justice for those who have been failed by the criminal justice system (as in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons).
Anonymous undertakes its activity — if for different purposes — in many of the same shadows that hide those aiming to break the law by selling illegal substances or viewing child pornography. As a result, it is not surprising that only 43 percent of people hold an overall favourable opinion of hacktivist groups. But this number masks another set of beliefs that show the ambiguity around technologies that allow people to remain anonymous online.
When the same people surveyed above were asked whether they thought groups such as Anonymous had a role to play in keeping people accountable, a clear majority indicated that hacktivists should step in as a last resort. Most people, for example, felt that hacktivists, hidden as they are behind technological tricks and a mask of anonymity, should hold large companies (66 percent), criminal organizations (66 percent) and governments, both foreign (66 percent) and domestic (65 percent), to account. This accountability role for hacktivist groups is only possible because of technologies that allow people to remain anonymous online.
There are plenty of reasons hacktivists should not have an accountability role in society. They can get it wrong, by pointing fingers at innocent people who are accused of a crime. They can wade into a geopolitical conflict and increase tensions rather than help to produce a peaceful outcome. They can also railroad criminal investigations on the Dark Web by spooking criminals who are on illegal websites. At the extreme, hacktivists simply shift the accountability question further down the road or, as the Roman poet Decimus Juvenal asked: “Who watches the watchers?”
The Dark Web leaves law enforcement in a strange position. Shutting the network down is not a viable policy option. On the technological front, trying to shut the Dark Web down would be a bit like putting the proverbial genie back in the bottle. Now that people know how to generate anonymity online, someone will always find a way to set up an anonymous network.
Additionally, while the abuses on the network are terrible and should be stopped, the Dark Web is used by human rights activists and political dissidents in countries such as Iran, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. Those people need to take additional technological steps to exercise their basic rights to privacy and freedom of expression. All this gives rise to a Dark Web dilemma, where either keeping the network up and running or shutting it down will simultaneously cause harm. It is an uncomfortable position. The best that can be done is for law enforcement to get itself onto the Dark Web. Police need to find ways to monitor the network,
leveraging the technology and the people involved. But the problem is that the bad guys can do that, too. Eliminating the abuses that occur in the underworld of the Internet, while leaving the network alone for those who need it, is not a dilemma that is easily resolved.

Fen Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Global Security & Politics Program at CIGI. He is Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University. Eric Jardine is a research fellow at CIGI. Find him on Twitter @ehljardine.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Category: Diplomatica

About the Author ()

Fen Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Global Security & Politics Program at CIGI. He is Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University. Eric Jardine is a research fellow at CIGI. Find him on Twitter @ehljardine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *