This is particularly important when it comes to the information-sharing that occurs within the criminal groups, terrorist groups, and others operating in the dark web who seek to disrupt the powers-that-be. The extent to which such sharing occurs, even among groups with no other links, is not generally appreciated. New hacking techniques and other information are disseminated quickly and widely by the bad actors in the dark web. This is in stark contrast to the lack of information-sharing that occurs among good actors — even those who are allies. The central reason for this is that governments, and in particular their law enforcement and intelligence agencies, operate with a culture centered on a “need-to-know” basis. There is a long-standing disposition against sharing information because it would compromise sources, methods, and tradecraft, devaluing the information and making it less actionable or usable. Unfortunately, the willingness of the bad actors to share much more freely puts their counterparts continually behind the proverbial eight-ball. It is hard to see how this can or will be addressed, given the fact that various agencies even within the same government often fundamentally resist sharing information.
So why do the powers-that-be allow the dark web to persist? Why not shut the whole thing down? There’s the issue of difficulty. Something so amorphous and well-hidden has a certain amount of protection ipso facto. Nevertheless, as the Tor system (also known as the Onion) was originally designed by the U.S. Navy, it would probably be feasible for the U.S. government to shut it down or at least severely hamper it. Another reason may be more important here: covert utility. The governments of the world are down in the dark web, too, gathering intelligence on enemies, conducting counterintelligence operations, false flag operations, and other activities — including mounting attacks on their foes. All countries can now in theory provide themselves with cyber attack capability, because they can simply buy it on the dark web. Easy to chuckle at, perhaps, until you recall that a single, skilled hacker can do a huge amount of damage. Our ADA electrical power grid system — ADA stands for advanced distribution automation, which refers to the mechanisms and protocols by which the regulation of load and distribution of power takes place — is old and vulnerable. It was not designed to handle the loads it is now required to, and could be disabled by the right kind of cyber attack. One that might very easily be contracted for and provisioned in the dark web. And that is only one example of many. Docex, described above, also has anti-state as well as civilian criminal uses. Imagine the damage changing certain documents with sensitive information in them could cause (consider changing inventories of critical materials or weapons, for example, or rewriting part of the code that controls a single nuclear power plant), particularly if it is done capably enough that no electronic copy of the original information exits.
A study published in February by King’s College London found that 57 percent of the dark web is used for “illegal” activities (and the study’s authors note that this is a conservative figure). However, such illegalities included the use of the dark web to access sites like Facebook in oppressive countries where open access is illegal. In fact, such activities would constitute “anti-state” uses of the dark web, but against repressive states.
There have been attempts to shut down pernicious parts of the dark web. Consider Silk Road, a black marketplace launched in 2011, where the kinds of things listed above and many others were traded. It was shut down by the FBI in 2013 and its alleged founder was arrested. But since Silk Road was shut down, similar marketplace sites have launched, including one called Silk Road Reloaded. Such platforms continue to launch, are sometimes shut down, and then replaced in turn by newer platforms.
In the context of the ironic dichotomy between the desire for greater privacy on the one hand and the desire for greater security on the other, some activities being conducted or under consideration by liberal Western democratic governments may ultimately drive more of their citizens to use the dark web for non-criminal purposes. The Investigatory Powers Bill, currently making its way through Britain’s parliament, would require communications service providers to keep the metadata of users for 12 months. Tor, however, anonymizes metadata, so that it is not attached to individuals. Although people with nothing to hide may not need to hide anything, there is nevertheless a growing global distrust of governments and a concomitant desire to avoid scrutiny on principle.
So the dark web can be a sinister place. But as long as major powers — and those who wish to avoid the increasing reach of their surveillance — find it more useful than not, it will continue to thrive.
Dee Smith is the founder and CEO of Strategic Insight Group.