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Updated July 21, The dark net has continued to make headlines over the last decade as a mysterious part of the internet where criminals lurk and engage in illegal activities, all from the privacy of home computers. Stories of the infamous Silk Road or AlphaBay markets, where users can order illicit drugs online, may come to mind.
Or perhaps you have heard about the anonymous digital currency, Bitcoin. But for all that is written about the dark net, most people would be hard-pressed to explain what it is. Here is a simple, user-friendly explainer of what it is, how it is used, and the questions it raises as we drift deeper into the digital age.
The dark net generally means using the internet in a manner that is difficult for authorities or non-state actors to monitor. This is usually achieved through encryption or by layering networks.
It might sound complicated, but for the majority of dark net users this is done simply with software that is downloaded for free and opened, just like ordinary, everyday software. For example, most internet users would not know how to manually "mine" server databases in order to index websites based on keywords.
But everyone knows how to use Google, and dark net applications aim to be just as user friendly. For website browsing, users can simply download a browser called Tor, for free, through which they can anonymously access a variety of websites not normally available on commercial browsers. A key difference is that dark net websites typically have an irregular web address, such as Facebook's dark net Tor address: For the most part, the dark net is not used for illicit purposes.
It is filled with activists' websites, anonymous stock traders, information databases for journalists, political chat rooms, instant messaging services, artist platforms, as well as the WikiLeaks portal where whistleblowers can submit information anonymously. Instant messaging program Wickr — the same Wickr that Australian politicians use to talk to each other — is another common tool used in association with the dark net. Different dark net software tools do different things. For example, Tor bounces your browser's request around the world before reaching its destination, and in the process obscures where the signal came from and where it went to.
Layering a variety of dark net software tools in combination — like Tor and Wickr — essentially makes it very difficult for anyone to follow your online activities. So the dark net is not necessarily a place but more a way of using the internet that can be used for good or bad.
It is only because media headlines referencing the dark net usually involve drugs or illegal activity that the use of the word "dark" usually gets conflated with sinister, when it more appropriately just means hidden or difficult to follow. Using the dark net for illicit purchases is done in almost exactly the same way as using the regular internet to make trades and purchases, however a few basic measures are put in place first.
Instead of just hopping online and opening a browser, users will first open two or three applications that run in the background of their system that ensure everything they do is obscured and encrypted. The most basic of these is a Virtual Private Network VPN , which essentially tunnels users' activities across a public network so that data can be sent and received privately. VPNs are not technically obscure and difficult applications, they are legal, user friendly and available for all to download and use.
In fact, many companies and organisations use VPNs to avoid security breaches, often without staff and users even realising, as they run quietly in the background.
Once a VPN is activated, users can then launch Tor, further layering their activities within the "dark net". The last piece of the dark net market puzzle is Bitcoin, a digital anonymous "crypto-currency" which can either be bought online via bank transfer or even at ATMs in most major cities.
Once these measures are in place, users then access their website of choice via Tor, find an illicit product they want and click buy to send their Bitcoin.
Then, just like ordering on Amazon or eBay, the postman himself will deliver the item the next day — stamped, with a name, address and return address — exactly the same as if concert tickets or a pair of jeans had been ordered online. However, rather than a pair of jeans, the item could be a handgun, a fake passport, or half a kilo of heroin, all of which are commonly available on dark net markets.
That the process is so easy is exactly why it is so widespread and currently favoured in non-technical-savvy criminal circles and amongst young people, and hence presents a game-changing threat. However, when used in combination, they allow an easily accessible level of security within the "dark net" that makes it ideal for illicit purposes.
The illicit packages generally pass undetected because the packages are designed to be unremarkable — known as "stealth" — and it is illegal for postal services and police to open non-suspicious packages. The process is also premised on the idea that even if authorities seize an illicit package, the heavy encryption tools that users make use of generally ensure that there is no easy way to prove in court that the sender or receiver actually made the transaction, and that it wasn't just randomly sent to or from a wrong address.
To further complicate the matter, the dark net has allowed for large volumes of minor trades — such as purchasing a small amount of marijuana or ecstasy, traditionally done on a street level — to cross jurisdictions. For example, teenagers in Perth may now be buying small amounts of illicit substances from a dealer in Sydney, an unprecedented phenomenon that has further complicated interstate jurisdiction. So what the dark net has done is convolute the war on drugs — as well as other issues it touches — by modifying it into a cyber-privacy issue where the police, the postal service, and internet providers are implicated against each other in a bureaucratic quagmire.
To make matters worse the dark net marketplace, in terms of net trade, is no small-time operation. Also, in the process of cracking the Silk Road, police involved in the investigation reportedly began their own markets or partnered with vendors to cash-in on the new cryptic technology once they learned how to use it.
The problem is that it depends on what "this" is. The dark net's technology? The dark net's markets? Because the two are inextricably linked. What the dark net has done is cut straight to the heart of the debate of an individual's right to privacy with regards to the digital age, and the governments who use the same technology are aware of the dilemma it presents.
Tor was initially created by the US military, and the dark net generally employs the same software that many civilians, corporations and politicians use daily for protection. So the line on who should have access, how much and why becomes a matter of contention very quickly. There is simply no doubt that bad people can communicate with impunity in a world of universal strong encryption. A spokesperson from the Australian Federal Police told the ABC that "online crime has evolved in an environment that offers a degree of anonymity and global reach across jurisdictions".
It added that it was only able to comment on international trade, and that state level police have their own departments dedicated to domestic issues. Interpol has long-launched dark net educational programs that offer training on how to use dark markets, engage with and track individuals, and shut down major vendors. But the problem of cracking a single individual or network on the dark net, while far from impossible , is a tedious task. As such, law enforcement has been required to pick its battles.
For example, to identify and rein-in Silk Road's founder Ross Ulbricht in it took more than two years of dedicated work, training, monitoring and the deployment of immense resources. In that time, about a dozen new, more sophisticated markets were created, with better security and a more anarchistic philosophy driving them. Cracking down on illicit dark net services also has the potential to raise ethical and legal questions with regards to the boundaries of law enforcement.
The creators of Tor responded in a statement: The university denied the reports, and the FBI called them "inaccurate", but as Wired reported, the FBI "declined to say which part of it was untrue". In coming years, advocates say, governments will be tasked with drafting and implementing more nuanced cyber laws that detail what kind of encryption and privacy tools can be used, by whom, and for what purposes.
With the rise of computers and digital networking over the past four decades, governments have had to draft cyber laws, and the same will apply to dark net technology. The internet gave us Google, email and rich information, but it also gave us cyber-bullying, mass pornography and Ashley Madison.
The dark net should be expected to present the same dichotomies, which in turn will pose its own set of social questions, including about how much we value our right to privacy, from the individual level to the organisational level. Advocates maintain that in order to come to terms with the potential implications of the dark net, societies will be forced to finally develop concrete answers to these as-of-yet vaguely answered questions.
Australian authorities said that while it is not an offence to use the dark net, it warns anyone engaging in illegal activity through it that their identity will not always remain anonymous and when caught, they will be prosecuted. First posted January 27, If you have inside knowledge of a topic in the news, contact the ABC. ABC teams share the story behind the story and insights into the making of digital, TV and radio content.
Read about our editorial guiding principles and the enforceable standard our journalists follow. With cost of living on the rise, Australians retiring overseas has dramatically increased, with swelling expat communities in Thailand, Spain and Cambodia. Meghan Markle's about to say "I do" to a life of weirdly-shaped headgear, constant surveillance, and creepy commentary about whether she is fulfilling her function as an heir oven. Fun times indeed, but she's still had it better than Our Mary did.
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Rise in internet drug dealing despite Silk Road closure: Dealers shed light on dark internet's drug trade. Digital encryption is used to enhance the security of a message or file It does this by scrambling the content so it can only be unscrambled through the use of a unique key Two users with access to the required key can then transfer coded messages which remain unreadable by anyone else A variety of common software allows users to create a key and code messages It is estimated it would take billions of years and thousands of computers to break well-encrypted data Applications such as Tor, Chrome, WhatsApp, and iMessage on iPhones all have encryption built in.
A screenshot showing Tor's homepage. What is the Silk Road? Website launched in February , became known as 'eBay for drugs' Complex masking and encryption software made it difficult to track users Users traded in Bitcoin - an online currency that hides purchasers' identities Vendors would use regular mail to post drugs to buyers Drugs like heroin, cocaine and synthetic substances reportedly for sale Founder Ross William Ulbricht reportedly operated site from San Francisco Ulbricht arrested and site shut down in October Ulbricht sentenced to life in prison in May Can't tell a bitcoin from a blockchain?
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