Impressions from a Talk on the Dark Web

By Alex Davidson and Andreas Haggman

darkwebOn a cold January evening, we, along with three other Cyber Security CDT colleagues, attended a panel discussion titled ‘The Future of the Dark Web: Seeking Anonymity in an Internet Panopticon’ held at Cybersalon in central London. The keynote speaker was Jamie Bartlett from the thinktank Demos, who was joined by journalist Wendy Grossman (who chaired the debate), computer scientist Dr Gareth Owen, digital consultant Jon Bains, software developer Bjarni Einarsson, and game developer Rich Metson.

Jamie Bartlett opened the discussion by summarising the findings of his recent book The Dark Net, which covered his explorations of the seedy underbelly of the Internet. It was an entertaining and enlightening talk, with his tales of trawling the Silk Road and purchasing drugs for “research” proving particularly amusing to the audience. Jamie spoke specifically about the review and feedback system that is used on Silk Road in order to achieve customer confidence. This view of the dark web presented a unique and welcome juxtaposition with how such negotiations are thought to be carried out in modern society’ although his main intention was to demonstrate the dynamics of an unconventional marketplace when viewed in the same realm as Ebay, Amazon etc. bartlett dark net

Next, Dr Owen talked about his research at Portsmouth University, where he had tested the popular conviction that 80% of dark web traffic was illegal pornography. First, he had catalogued and categorised all Tor hidden services, equivalent of websites in the Tor network, which showed that the majority (~60%) were drug sales and distribution markets, with lesser percentages spread among sales of other (illegal) goods, online services (chats and forums), file sharing, and legal pornography. Only about 2% of hidden services actually hosted illegal pornography. When analysing traffic on the dark web, however, his findings astonishingly and frighteningly reinforced the hypothesis being tested, as more than 80% of website ‘hits’ were for these illegal pornography pages. Due to the technical specifications of the Tor network Dr Owen’s statistical findings came with caveats, but his numbers were nevertheless of significant consequence and prompted debate about illicit uses of anonymity online.

Jon Bains followed with an impassioned attack on widespread surveillance and implored the audience to follow some basic rules for reducing their online footprint or digital presence. At the end of his talk he distributed a list of 50 actions people could take to “go dark(er)” and avoid prying eyes. These ranged from sensible things like encrypting personal storage devices to outrageously impractical ones like moving to a remote unconnected island. Afterwards, however, it became clear that Jon undermined his own argument by owning a (very) public twitter feed and a blog which he uses as a platform to speak out to a, presumably, global audience.

Jon’s talk provoked a significant number of remarks and questions from an audience who were overwhelmingly anti-surveillance. The backing behind Jon’s words was weak due to the lacking of a firm information background – but his viewpoint was given quite a lot of attention as it reverberated with the feeling of the event. Consequently, the furore caused by Jamie’s defence of government agencies was predictable; his assertion being that public demand for ‘security’ had caused politicians to turn to their security apparatuses (GCHQ etc.) who had in turn obliged with the tools they had available. Therefore, according to Jamie, the public need to be more aware of what they ask for, which requires more transparent oversight of security agencies.

At this point Wendy Grossman had to park the discussion and bring in the final two speakers. Firstly, Bjarni Einarsson spoke about his project MailPile, which is intended to provide end-to-end encryption for email. Such encryption would make the messages unreadable to anyone who intercepted them, allowing greater secrecy in communications. Though the idea is not new, it has yet to be implemented in any mainstream mail client, which is something MailPile seeks to address. Finally, Rich Metson from indie studio Samaeopus spoke about his computer game Off Grid in which the protagonist must hunt down their missing daughter in a fully interconnected city. The game mechanics were reminiscent of Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs in that the player could hack into devices to access information and control the physical environment, but unlike the big-budget title, Off Grid hopes to inform and educate the player about the mechanics and functions of surveillance. The game seemed like a relatively nice idea, but its message could potentially be restricted by linearity. In order to convey a kind of ‘no holds barred’ hacking environment, the game’s world would need to be on a massive scale, both in macro and micro detail. Given that Samaeopus only has two employees, however, it is doubtful whether such scale can be achieved.

Overall the debate was informative and thought-provoking, even if it did not cover much new ground. Disappointingly, the evening did not live up to its billing, as the future of the dark web was not really explicitly discussed and no predictions or assertions were ventured by the speakers. Despite this, however, it was well worth attending the event and it is clear that the issues surrounding anonymity and privacy in the digital world will continue to pervade modern society.

Andreas Haggman is a PhD student in the Cybersecurity CDT at Royal Holloway. He completed his undergraduate and masters degrees in the War Studies department at King’s College London before joining the CDT in the autumn of 2014. Prior to and inbetween his degrees he spent time working in the video games industry, retail management and the defence sector. Andreas’s research interests lie in non-technical cyber security topics pertaining to military and government applications of cyber technologies, and organisational and policy responses to cyber security issues.

Alex Davidson graduated in July 2013 from the University of Warwick with a BSc Mathematics degree, receiving first class honours. Since then he worked as a software developer for a company that provided clinical systems for primary and secondary healthcare settings within the NHS before joining the CDT’s second cohort of students. Alex’s current research interests are in Multi-party computation and Use of one-time signatures in post quantum cryptography. While these areas are overtly mathematically intertwined he also retains interests in writing secure software and the social and moral debates over the usage of services like TOR in anonymising users across the internet.

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