The Internet has revolutionized the ways of sharing and exchange of data worldwide, by enabling people and businesses to access useful information regardless of time and their location. Likewise, it has also simplified data gathering and access to knowledge assets, by making a mine of information available to any user having access to a simple internet connection. However, this easy and free flow of data comes at a privacy cost, since it makes it relatively easy for both governments and corporations to collect and transfer sensitive information about people, businesses and other organizations. Despite privacy rules and regulations, government agencies are always privileged in accessing and processing internet information. Likewise, an increasing number of enterprises are mining internet data in order to boost their customer facing processes such as sales, marketing and retail processes. The more intelligent these processing mechanisms are, the higher is the likelihood of compromising other citizens’ privacy.
In this landscape, the “dark” potion of the web (conveniently called “dark web”) comes to the foreground. Dark web refers to that portion of the internet content which can be browsed based on special software that enforces specific access authorizations. Dark web content is provided over “darknets”, which are overlay networks that are formed on top of internet nodes. Note that the dark web is part of the deep web i.e. the portion of the web that is not indexed by search engines like Google and hence not easily discoverable. However, the deep web has a wider scope that the dark web.
The dark web is intentionally hidden and inaccessible through standard Web browsers. As a result, dark web sites offer anonymity, protect their users from unauthorized use and provide encryption features that prevent monitoring. In these ways, they enable their users to exchange privacy sensitive information (e.g., personal data), in a way that does not allow their scrutiny by conventional internet tools.
Understanding Dark Web Browsing
Dark web technologies can be used to build small scale peer-to-peer networks that enable private information exchange among small or medium groups of users. However, they also enable larger scale darknets, which are operated either by public organizations or by individuals. Dark web networks are different from the public internet in two main ways:
Furthermore dark web pages are either concealed to hide in plain sight or reside in a separate public layer of the standard internet. Typical examples of such web pages and their elements include:
Dark web browsing is typically anonymous and difficult to be track as a result of the use of layered and encrypted systems. Moreover, such browsing is done using special browsers, such as the Tor Browser for Tor sites, which are also coined “Onion Sites” as they are identified by the “.onion” domain. Likewise, special search engines for Tor networks have also emerged, such as the OnionLink engine.
Platforms and Tools for the Dark Web
Some of the most prominent dark web platforms include Tor, Freenet and I2P. In particular:
Illegal Uses of the Invisible Web
The Dark Web provides personal freedom and privacy, which alleviates some of the security and privacy contraints of the internet. However, it also provides some compelling advantages for cyber-criminals, who want to perform illegal activities on-line. For instance, dark web’s anonymity enables cyber-criminals to commit tasks that are against-law.
As a prominent example, the TOR network has been abused many times by cyber-criminals. In particular, law enforcement agencies in various countries have reported use of TOR for:
In several cases, the abuse of the TOR network has been based on configuration vulnerabilities of the TOR infrastructure such as unmasking of TOR users and communication channel defects. Fortunately, in all cases, the TOR community managed to fix these problems very promptly.
Dark web opens a whole new range of opportunities for privacy sensitive information exchange. At the same time, it also facilitates cyber-crime as is evident from a large number of darknets driven criminal incidents worldwide. Finding the subtle balance between boosting citizen’s freedom and preventing potential abuse of darknets is certainly a challenging task. The right use of dark net will provide exciting opportunities not only for research and experimentation, but also for the development of innovative projects and services.
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