Almost all of us are aware of the incognito tab while using a search engine, but do you know about the darknet or dark web? Or have you just heard of it as the dark side of the internet.

If the internet were an ocean, darknet lies beneath the ocean bed. So, the darknet is that part which is beneath the internet and private net is hidden from the usual internet users. It is often referred to as the Invisible net as whatever goes on the darknet is invisible to a normal user browsing through the internet.

The darknet is an overlay network to the internet that can only be accessed by specialized software, configurations and special authorizations, and often makes use of non-standard communication protocols in order for it to be deliberately inaccessible by the internet. The access to the darknet is through the TOR, which is ‘The Onion Router’, the word “onion” refers to the layers that must be penetrated by the data. Now, like Google Chrome and Yahoo for surface web, we have search engines like Grams, ahimia.fi and Torch for the dark web.

Unlike normal surfing, the computer does not connect directly to the server where the website is located. Instead, a whole series of servers are involved in the connection in order to create the greatest possible anonymity. There are three such layers in totality. The content that we usually search is found on HTTP, that is the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, whereas the content on dark web is on HTTPS, which is HTTP Secure, and just as it says, it is secure and untraceable.

Now going by the connotation we have to the word dark, we assume that the DarkNet is probably related to either illegal or not good. But that is like looking at one side of a coin, if we flip the coin there is a plethora of possibilities that we can benefit from. True, we cannot put a blind to the wrong side of it, the content uploaded being untraceable to the uploader, the possibility of illegal content is very high, and with the architecture of dark web being superimposed on the world wide web, it is nearly impossible to catch the original uploader. The darknet turns ugly with availability of otherwise restricted content with information and data on black markets, fetish communities,unregistered weapons, drugs, forged and stolen documents or credit cards, and hacking and piracy. And the TOR can’t just be randomly shut down, it was created by the US military base in the first place to communicate anonymously, and as it is still used by government agencies, it is needed.

But that is not the end of darknet, harmless places such as academic databases and corporate sites that aren’t found on the surface web, can be accessed by scholars and researchers and be of immense help to them. There are numerous activities done on the darknet that are absolutely legally acceptable and some that aren’t, such activities, both legal and illegal can be grouped into three main categories: First- activism, journalism, and whistle-blowing, Second- criminal activities in Darknet markets, and, Third- cyber security threats including malware and ransomware.

Talking about the first category, online anonymity provided by the Darknet is used for social and political purposes. Individuals can openly share their social and political beliefs; and their disagreements with, or expectations of, their governments without fear of retribution. This sharing is especially necessary in countries with strong state censorship and surveillance against political activists, freedom fighters, and journalists. Journalists, activists, and whistle-blowers in these countries could use the Darknet to communicate with the outside world, encourage social change, and political reform, without disclosing their identities. Mostly all sorts of organisations try to keep their electronic information exchanges in safe places, and similarly do journalists and activists. In fact, the use of TOR is recommended by ‘Reports Without Borders’ as one of its ‘survival kits’ for journalists and activists working in repressive countries. Whistle-blowing is the act of leaking governments’ or companies’ private information to the public. Some argue that the public have the right to be informed about the activities of both their governments and large companies. Regardless of that in some countries, leaking private information from governmental files is considered to be treasonable, e.g. the UK. Moreover, leaking information from companies is illegal in some countries.

Second one, the Darknet is a booming zone for cyber security threats and risks. Hacking tools that could directly or indirectly be used to attack companies or other individuals are traded on some Darknet markets. Malware authors have been using the Darknet to communicate and exchange ideas. The Mevade Botnet saw an increase to 5 million daily users after incorporating a TOR anonymity network. Ransomware install viruses on infected computers, scramble and encrypt all data these can access, and then demand payments in the form of Bitcoin to release the data. The TOR network has become indispensable to the prevalence of ransomware applications. Certainly, the Darknet, along with the invention of Bitcoins has provided profitable businesses for criminals.

Third, a large number of virtual markets on the Darknet specialise in the trading of illegal drugs. Stolen identities, credit card information, weapons, and contract killing are also popular ‘goods and services’ on this network . One of the most famous Darknet markets—the Silk Road—was said to promote decentralisation of governments and socio-political movements against law enforcement agencies. Since 2011 when the Silk Road dominated the Darknet’s marketplace, its anonymous ecosystem has evolved significantly. One can even leave feedback on products, a system called ‘escrow’ was even set up to protect the sellers and the buyers, and to resolve any possible disputes. Due to its high profile, law enforcement agencies soon started to take down the Silk Road. After the original Silk Road was shut down in October 2013, the 2nd version, Silk Road 2.0, came online under different management. Later, a 3rd version, Silk Road Reloaded, was created after the end of Silk Road 2.0. The rise of the Darknet markets demonstrate the degree of resilience of these anonymous online ecosystems. It also questions whether law enforcement agencies can effectively regulate these markets.

Now the darknet can be thought of as the dark side of the internet, but there are a lot of positive possibilities it provides that can be an advantage to a lot of people around. Even if many criminal activities happen on the darknet, it is not criminogenic. Certainly, illegal trading of drugs is one of the most dominant activities in darknet markets, but putting that aside it does provide freedom of expression, which is the main attraction to its regular legal users, with proper controls and checks, there can be many opportunities at hand, the bright side of the Darknet can be put to use.

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