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The Dark Side of the Web

#OpDarknet, the Anonymous offensive against online paedophile activity, has drawn further attention to the Dark Web - the hidden online world where anonymity attracts those with something to hide.

by David Glance On November 2, 2011

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The hacktivist group Anonymous recently launched #OpDarknet, an operation aimed at disrupting websites containing sexual images of children and exposing the websites’ users. Aside from uncovering the alleged paedophile sites, #OpDarknet has succeeded in further bringing to the public’s attention the phenomenon of the Dark Web.

Although the definition of the Dark Web (also known as the Dark Net, Deep Web or Invisible Web) can lead to some technical debate, put simply it is that portion of the Internet that is invisible to search engines. In some cases Dark Web sites may actively block search engines from including them in their search results. In other cases, the sites are designed to be inaccessible using regular URL addresses. Another even darker portion of the Dark Web is only accessible using special software such as Tor, Freenet and I2P. Not only does this software allow people to access the Dark Web, it allows them to do so anonymously.

Dark Markets on the Dark Web

During #OpDarknet, members of Anonymous explored a site called the Hidden Wiki. Accessible only on the Tor network, the Hidden Wiki is an example of a Tor “hidden service”.

Here you can get access to everything from the services of a contract killer (“Kill your problem – snitch, paparazzo, rich husband, cop, judge, competition, etc.”) to fake IDs and hacking services.

It is also somewhat ironically used by certain Anonymous members to store files.

While exploring the Hidden Wiki, Anonymous discovered a secret portion of the site called Hard Candy, which promotes and links to paedophile websites. The section detailed how to access particular sites on Tor, Freenet and I2P. Attempts to remove the links and disrupt the hosting of the sites were resisted by site administrators and the hosting company.

A screenshot from the 'Hidden Wiki' listing services available

Of the sites that Anonymous identified the largest is Lolita City (LC), rumoured to host more than 100GB of images. Anonymous released 1,589 user account details from the site. The group have also posted a chat log of conversations with someone claiming to be the owner of LC.

The owner claimed that he had connections with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and that the sites were being bankrolled by the “Russian mob”. He further claimed that LC was making him £600 a day.

Software enablers of the Dark Web

The creators of Tor, Freenet and I2P set out to build software that would allow users living in countries with repressive regimes to surf the Internet and share information anonymously and safely. Indeed people living in relatively liberal countries might have legitimate reasons for wanting their activities on the Internet kept private: whistle-blowers, journalists or individuals who simply value their privacy.

At the same time those conducting illegal activities stood to gain a lot from technology that allowed for this level of anonymity. The creators of the software are well aware of this fact. The Tor Abuse FAQ side steps the issue of illegality within the system by claiming that criminals would find better ways of achieving anonymity and would therefore be unlikely to use Tor.

Ultimately the moral argument presented by supporters of Tor and Freenet is that illegal and criminal use of their networks, while unwanted, is a necessary price to pay for all the potential benefits that the technologies bring.

The Dark Side of the Dark Web

That sites on the Dark Web should attract crime and illegal activities should not come as a surprise. The Silk Road, for example, is a well known Tor-based Dark Web market place that openly sells drugs, fake ids, pornography and other goods. It accepts Bitcoins, an anonymous online currency, as payment.

The Dark Web markets are not exclusively hidden by Tor or I2P. CarderPlanet, a Ukrainian website where users traded in stolen credit card details, was on the open web but access was limited to members only.

The issue of child pornography on the Dark Web is not new. In 2007, a programmer named HD Moore announced that he was building a tracking system that could be added to the Tor network to pinpoint users searching for particular terms. In the end the system was not implemented – you may be able to pick up people trying to access child pornography, but you could also be picking up activists and “legitimate” users of the Dark Web.

Anonymous’ Actions – Help or Hindrance?

It has been suggested by some that in this latest case Anonymous have acted irresponsibly and have jeopardised law enforcement actions against paedophiles using the Hidden Wiki by not simply handing over what they found to the police.

However, it seems that in the US at least the FBI has been aware of these sites for some time. Security blogger Scot Terban, writing about the Hidden Wiki in September this year, reported his findings to the FBI and was led to understand that they were aware of the site and its activities.

Despite child pornography sites being hidden in the Dark Web, police are successfully tracking and shutting some of them down. Dutch police recently traced 220,000 images on 20 websites after they arrested 27 year-old Robert Mikelsons in Holland. He had been using Tor to run four child pornography forums as well as accessing other sites.

There are no signs that the owners of the sites or those managing the Hidden Wiki are going to give up. It would appear they are trusting that the anonymity of Tor will allow them to continue despite an increasingly informed public.

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Photo Credits: Flickr CC Solo, GlamourShootR/AmourDeCouple. AnonOpDarkNet. Anonymous Surfing.

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