Dark Days for The Dark Web

LOS ANGELES — Days after Facebook revealed the availability of Dark Web access to its social network, a major bust reinforces the “shady underground” perception of this shadowy segment of the Internet.

Despite it supposedly being hidden, according to experts, the so-called deep or Dark Web might be up to 500 times the size of the open web — yet it is not reachable by standard search engines or nosey snoops — making an accurate estimation of its size virtually impossible.

According to Wikipedia, “The Onion Router,” commonly known as Tor, is free software enabling online anonymity as a means of resisting censorship. Designed to allow users to surf the Internet anonymously, Tor seeks to hide surfing activities and locations from government agencies, corporations and others.

“Tor directs Internet traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer network consisting of more than five thousand relays to conceal a user’s location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis,” explains the online encyclopedia. “Using Tor makes it more difficult for Internet activity to be traced back to the user: this includes ‘visits to Web sites, online posts, instant messages, and other communication forms.’”

Wikipedia goes on to reveal that the term “onion routing” refers to application layers of encryption, nested like the layers of an onion, which are used to anonymize communication by encrypting the original data multiple times, including IP address, and then sending it through a successive network of randomly selected Tor relays, each of which can only decrypt its layer and discover the next node to send the data packet to.

It is a digital version of the “cell” based command and control structure used by intelligence agencies and terrorist groups, to prevent one captured member from revealing the other network members.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has reportedly characterized Tor as “the King of high secure, low latency Internet anonymity” with “no contenders for the throne in waiting,” which is high praise indeed.

In response to government censorship by countries including China, Cuba, Iran and North Korea, which ban access to the site, Facebook has implemented a special service allowing anonymous access through the Tor dark web service, which boasts approximately three million users. While Tor access to Facebook is not new, the newly enhanced access offered by the social network maintains data encryption, without mistaking Tor users for those with hacked accounts.

“[Tor’s] design means that from the perspective of our systems a person who appears to be connecting from Australia at one moment may the next appear to be in Sweden or Canada,” explains Facebook engineer Alec Muffett. “In other contexts such behavior might suggest that a hacked account is being accessed through a ‘botnet,’ but for Tor this is normal.”

Dr. Steven Murdoch of London’s University College, collaborated with Facebook on its Tor initiative.

“It’s quite hard to use a social network completely anonymously. It somewhat defeats the point, unless you’re just reading information,” Murdoch told the BBC. “But just because you want to tell Facebook your name, [it] doesn’t mean they should be able to find out your location and your browsing habits.”

Users can access Facebook by visiting https://facebookcorewwwi.onion with a Tor browser.

“It’s not so much protecting people from governments,” Murdoch says, “but protecting [users] from people who are spying on communications — [and] that could be anyone from criminals to marketers.”

As for “fooling” the government, that may be a matter of some governments, but not all — as Tor was reportedly developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, with funding by the U.S. State Department, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize there is a secret backdoor for those with the right key...

While advocates point to Tor’s benefits for a free exchange of information between those in repressive countries and those in the free world, law enforcement and other agencies point to it as being a haven for illegal activity — from illicit drug sales to child pornography.

This perception was reinforced by today’s report of a massive crackdown on Tor sites, which saw the closure of the infamous Silk Road 2.0 — along with 400 other sites accused of trafficking in prohibited items and operating under the false assumption that they were doing so “anonymously.”

16 European countries along with backing from the U.S., resulted in 17 arrests, including Blake Benthall, the reputed kingpin of Silk Road 2.0. In addition to the arrests and seized websites, $1 million in Bitcoins were reportedly confiscated from the targeted companies.

“Today we have demonstrated that, together, we are able to efficiently remove vital criminal infrastructures that are supporting serious organized crime,” Troels Oerting, of Europol’s European cybercrime center explains. “And we are not ‘just’ removing these services from the open Internet — this time we have also hit services on the dark net using Tor where, for a long time, criminals have considered themselves beyond reach.”

Other experts agree.

“Tor has long been considered beyond the reach of law enforcement,” Professor Alan Woodward of the University of Surrey says. “This action proves that it is neither invisible nor untouchable.”

As for how the adult industry perceives Tor and the dark web, members of XBIZ.net seemed unanimous in their avoidance of it as a marketing channel.

Actual Mike of Actually Helping notes that anyone who markets their product on the dark web has no right to complain later when they are suddenly, “randomly” targeted for audits and investigations, etc., saying that “Simply put, it’s a bad idea and a dumb business move.”

“What would putting the site up on the dark web buy you,” Walker of Lairds Computer Services asked. “[There are] too many negatives associated with it and no upside that I can see for the business — assuming that its legal in the first place.

While Erik from YourPaysitePartner opines that Tor may become “the Internet of the 90’s” in the near future — “filled with criminals and pornographers,” despite not being a straight road to drive down — Ben Yates of Pervlens Media says that there are too many negative connotations to using the Dark Web.

“You’d be justifying the anti-porn statements that the industry is being shameful,” Yates explains. “You’d strengthen their calls for harsher legislation aimed at producers.”

Beyond negative public perceptions, there are some fundamental economic disincentives to marketing legitimate adult content on the Dark Web.

“To be honest, the types of people who would be using Tor and the Dark Web would in no way pay for any adult services,” Paul Matthews of VivaStreet told XBIZ. “Or in some cases, you will find hackers who will sell annual or lifetime mega-pass access for cents on the dollar... [there is] no point in trying to compete for sales on that basis as there is a guaranteed net loss.”

Regardless of the criminal activity and questionable market demographic the Dark Web represents, the rollout of Facebook’s initiative and the digital media industry’s propensity to try new approaches, means that we haven’t yet heard the end of the Dark Web story.

Stay tuned to XBIZ for more...