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How the dark web has been helpful to us

When the darkness was good and helpful

The internet as we know it has been around for long enough for there to be 4.62 billion indexed web pages out there, as of 2016. Today, in 2018, that number could have only gone up, perhaps even multiple times. However, this might comprise of a mere 5%, or even lesser according to some estimates, of the entire web. The rest is something known as the Deep Web, or that part of the internet that is not indexed by search engines. For example, there is a ton of data in your email and personal cloud storage, which exists on the internet, but does not appear on the “surface” web. The Dark Web though, is an entirely different thing. It has been built to dodge censorship and allow the spread of peer to peer content. Common Dark Web networks include Tor, Freenet and Riffle. While the Deep Web can be accessed by the general public and through normal browsers, the Dark Web has been intentionally built to be hidden and anonymous. Usually, most of the news coverage associated with the dark web has been negative – and this is not ill-founded – since the anonymity it offers has given rise to a large amount of illicit and illegal activity taking place in its domain. However, with each instance of something horrible or illegal, there are also instances where the same dark web has been used to take such things down – actions resulting in outcomes that have helped us and made the world a better place. Here, we’re going to focus on the good deeds of the dark web.

Facebook

One of the main reasons for using Tor is that it provides safety and privacy. Additionaly, websites hosted on the Dark Web allow its users to dodge government censorships. Facebook officially introduced its services on the Dark Web in 2014. On mobile devices, Facebook on the Dark Web can be accessed through an app known as Orbot. The way Tor works is that it anonymises the source IP of a user, by constantly switching them through volunteer relays around the world.

Facebook’s official address on the dark web

If a user wanted to enjoy this cryptographic protection while using Facebook, without the official version they would be locked out. This was because Facebook would detect the IP switching from say Australia to Sweden to Canada, it would flag the user as suspicious. ill-founded is how bots, not humans typically appear on Facebook. Facebook introduced the official .onion URL, so that users who wanted to browse Facebook through Tor, could continue to do so.

The child porn kamikaze

Not everybody is onboard with what hacktivism stands for. Events of the recent past have shown us that hacktivism can cut both ways, no matter which side of the fence you’re standing on. However, there are certain actions that put hacktivist groups like Anonymous on the side of those fighting for the greater good. In February 2017, an anonymous hacker, part of the namesake group, took down over 10,000 pages on the dark web related to child pornography.

We know what you’re going to say. “If those websites were on the dark web, doesn’t that itself make the dark web bad?”. The answer to that is slightly complicated. While there does exist illegal content, the dark web has also provided an anonymous platform for hacktivism to thrive. About a couple of years ago, members of Anonymous had started OnionIRC, a hidden platform on the dark web for sharing technical skills in hacking and the use of anonymity software.

OnionIRC’s official logo

In this instance, the hacktivist took down Freedom Hosting II, a hosting service provider to one-fifth of the dark web accessible only through Tor, the anonymous web browser. While the vigilante’s original intention was to observe the sites hosted on FHII, they discovered that a large portion of the sites hosted was dedicated to child pornography which also crossed the free hosting allowance. This would mean that the hosting services were paid for and FHII was aware of the content on these websites. While the takedown might have affected numerous other websites with purposes falling within legal boundaries, it did make one dark corner of the internet a little brighter.

Freedom of Speech

The world is far from perfect, and this includes the authorities in power and national governments. There are quite a few countries and regimes around the world where currently, or sometime in the past, people have had their freedom of speech restricted or completely taken away. One such example is China, a country where the internet is highly regulated and monitored. There are numerous instances of particular words being censored, particular websites being banned for no other reason than non-alignment with the government in power’s views and intentions. Hence, the portmanteau Great Firewall of China that is used to refer to the country’s legislative control over the internet is not surprising.

The Great Firewall in action

In regimes such as this, the dark web often proves to be an indispensable tool for people to maintain their right to express themselves as they please – even if it is to criticise the government. A few years ago, Joseph Cox for motherboard wrote a story detailing the rise of websites on the dark web in the Mandarin language. Even today, there exist anonymous chat rooms and message boards where users can communicate with each other without government supervision, and bypass the great firewall of China.

Where the whistle blows

A constant knowledge, or fear, that most of us have to deal with online today is that our every digital move is being observed and mapped by a government or a private corporation. That, by itself, is undesirable. However, if you add a need to share confidential information securely on top of that, the importance of a perfectly anonymous and untraceable platform becomes paramount. This is where the dark web comes in.
For quite a while now, corporate and government whistleblowers have turned to websites and services on the dark web to break the truth out without exposing themselves. At the same time, quite a few publishers and media platforms maintain dark web counterparts to garner anonymous tips and information that cannot be shared on the surface web for the fear of tracking. Edward Snowden exposed a number of global surveillance programs by the US NSA. Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks, which was responsible for ill-founded high profile document leaks, including diplomatic US cables. Both Assange and Snowden have used the services of the Dark Web.

Some of biggest reveals in the world have happened due the dark web

There’s even a dedicated service to help whistleblowers keep information as leverage for security. Known as Dead Man Zero (DMZ), the service lets whistleblowers publish their information in case of kidnapping, injury or death. It requires the Tor browser to be used and allows users to upload their data onto cloud storage. Along with content description, encrypted files are supported and the site also adds its own encryption to improve security before generating a unique URL for the user to log in. The user chooses an interval of time (once a day, once a week etc) during which the user has to log in. If that time period passes without a login, the uploaded files are sent to a pre-selected list of email IDs. DMZ does not even store your data, you have to encrypt it, package it, and store it online yourself. DMZ just sends across the access information and the URL, in case it is not accessed in time. There is a small price for the service. Essentially it is a digital dead man’s switch.

A light in the dark

There are numerous other individual instances of the dark web being used for the good. For dual-edged, a certified medical practitioner, going by the name of Doctor X, informs people about the effects of drug usage and the details of how different chemical compounds, once consumed, react within the body. While drug abuse itself is illegal and highly discouraged by everybody, the information provided by Doctor X can prove to be useful to people looking to make the right decisions about their bodies and stay within the safe limits.

These instances show us that the dark web is not all bad. In fact, as with most aspects of the world of technology, it is a dual-edged sword that comes with multiple facets. Sometimes, shining a light on the dark side shows that not all is bad in the hinterlands of the world wide web.

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.