Thursday, March 25, 2021

Surface Net, Deep Net, & DarkNet: What are they, and when should I start to panic?

 By Alex Rodrigues, Psy.D.

The DarkNet has been gaining increasing attention lately.  Most of us have probably caught a short news segment alarming us of the dangers on the DarkNet.  The segments are nearly identical and use the same, ominous graphic of a hooded figure at a computer doing something nefarious.   Such clips have cast the DarkNet as a virtual lair of child pornographers, identity thieves, and terrorist extremists.  While those elements do exist, the DarkNet also offers more, some of which is positive.  The following blog provides some basic information about the DarkNet.  It is designed to educate those working at the intersection of the digital world and sexual offending.

1.       What is the DarkNet? Rather than start with the technical aspects and confuse readers with complex jargon, it is likely better to think about the DarkNet on a broader, conceptual level first.  From this perspective, it becomes clear the DarkNet is about anonymity.  DarkNet architects, as well as current users, value and prioritize anonymity.  This anonymity may involve hiding online drug deals or providing internal corporate documents as part of a whistleblower action. Users find anonymity by operating far below the Internet’s Surface and Deep Web levels

All Internet users are already familiar with the Surface Web, the part of the Internet composed of widely accessible websites and search engines like Google.  For reference, the Surface Web only makes up a fraction of the entire Internet.  In addition to the Surface Web, there are sites and Internet features that are harder to find and can not be accessed with search engines.  Often, access to Deep Web features require the use of a password or online credentials.  The Deep Web includes everything from one’s personal Amazon account to his or her company’s intranet.  Many readers who have worked in a modern hospital have used Deep Web services when accessing a patient's electronic medical file.  In comparison to the Surface and Deep Webs, specialized software is needed to access the DarkNet.      

2.       How does one find the DarkNet?  The information and specialized software needed to access the DarkNet can easily be found on the Surface web.  Sites such as Reddit offer places where one can learn about DarkNet mechanics and tools, like Tor.  Tor, short for The Onion Router, refers to both the software needed to browse the Internet anonymously and the network of computers that make up the system.  The average person can easily download Tor to his computer. 

The software allows one to remain hidden by using a series of other computers as relay stations.  Finklea (2017)[1] detailed how web traffic is routed through these various relays, obscuring one’s identity and Internet protocol (IP) address.  All Tor traffic goes through a minimum of three relay stations.  This practice helps to hide one’s identity because each relay station only has information about the two stations it is sandwiched between. 

To put it more simply, imagine you were tasked with spreading a secret message.  You were given a location and person to pass the message to.  However, you don't ever learn if that person is the intended recipient of the secret message or another messenger in a larger chain.  In this situation, you only know the person that provided you the message and the one you passed it to.  This is essentially how Tor works to hide one's Internet browsing.  Once on the DarkNet, one can turn to directories or search engines, organized according to content.

3.      What does someone do on the DarkNet?  As stated above, the DarkNet is used to maximize privacy.  For instance, one can purchase drugs or other illicit contraband anonymously. Arguably, the most well-known DarkNet drug bazaar was Silk Road, which law enforcement shut down in 2013.  Before its dissolution, Silk Road was a digital marketplace that generated close to 200 million in anonymous drug sales.  In addition to drugs, one can find child pornography, firearms, malware, and stolen credit card information on the DarkNet. Transactions are completed with the use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

While the DarkNet is largely known for more nefarious reasons, most individuals accessing the platform are not engaged in illicit activity. Many are concerned with secret government surveillance and do not want to have their digital history cataloged.  Additionally, the DarkNet has been used to fight against tyranny and injustice. For instance, those living under authoritarian regimes use it as a means of safe communication.  Even the New York Times is present on the DarkNet, providing a secure submission portal to whistleblowers trying to get sensitive information to the public. 

Hopefully, this blog entry has provided those curious about the DarkNet with some basic information.  In the meantime, refrain from immediately downloading Tor and perusing the hidden areas of the Net. While accessing the DarkNet is not illegal per se, one risks encountering harmful material, or at minimum, being dropped by his Internet provider.




[1] Finklea, Kristin. Dark Web. Congressional Research Service, 10 Mar. 2017,


Friday, March 19, 2021

Reflections on the challenges of “true” community integration post-conviction.

Submitted by Ben

Bloggers’ Note: Readers may recall our blog post of February 19, 2021, titled, Looking for the Best and Preparing for the Worst. It focused on a recent article in Slate that questioned a poetic contribution to a magazine. The question was whether the submission from a person convicted of possessing child sexual abuse materials should be included in a magazine highlighting the work of those serving time in prison.

Ben, who describes himself as a MAP (an acronym standing for minor-attracted person), ex-offender, and former pornography addict, sent an email with a number of thoughts in response. With Ben’s permission, we are re-posting it here to provide the perspective of at least one person of a group whose voices often go unheard and unrecognized. It has been only lightly copy-edited.

I have some thoughts on your very thought-provoking article, about why sex offenders are always excluded, even to the extent of preventing them from expressing their feelings, in a poetic contribution to a magazine.

A lot of it is because acknowledging that these people have a sensitive, human side, makes it harder to 'other' them and treat them as monsters. For many people in the prison system, who are already feeling great levels of shame and stigma, because of their own (non-sexual) offending, it is probably very helpful to have someone they can feel morally superior to. Being able to look down on sex offenders, makes them feel less ashamed of their own crimes.

The general public has a slightly different reaction. Part of their hatred towards all criminals comes from a fear of being a victim of crime. They imagine how they would feel if someone hurt them. When it comes to children, the public asks themselves how they would feel, if someone hurt their child. The answer is scared, angry, and filled with a burning desire for revenge. They then take those feelings and project them onto any sex offender they read about in the news.

Feeding that natural desire, to punish those who may pose a threat to you or your children, are the myths of sex offender dangerousness and incurability. The frequent references to the dark triad and to sexual offender stereotypes are used as explanations. They must be narcissists, or sociopaths, who either do not care about their victims or are incapable of caring. The most common questions people ask themselves about sexual offending are why did they do it and how could they do it. It seems to go against all normal human ethical standards and to defy explanation. When confronted with something they cannot explain, people return to simple to understand concepts, like good and evil, or mental illness. Hence, most SO are categorised as either mad or bad or both. There is very little understanding of the role that childhood trauma plays, in an adult's sexual offending.

Then you have people's own understanding of human sexuality. There are two elements to this. The idea that a person's sexuality is fixed and unchanging, plus the notion that any thoughts, desires, or sexual interests must be acted upon because they are impossible to resist.

Most of the public, when they examine their own sexual thoughts and feelings, understand that have a Jekyll and Hyde quality to them. There is no divide between sexual offenders and the general public, in this respect, only a spectrum of sexual offending. Everyone knows that they have powerful sexual urges inside them. Everyone knows that they lose control of those feelings sometimes. The research shows that people take more risks when sexually aroused, for example. When that is combined with a disinhibitor, like alcohol, you often see offending behavior, like date rape, as a result. The feminist argument that all men are potential rapists, seems to be supported by this evidence. There is no 'other'. Any man, given the right disinhibitors, could potentially act on his sexual feelings, in an immoral and possibly illegal way.

But rather than face this uncomfortable truth, it's far easier for society to pretend that only monsters and others are capable of committing sexual offenses. Most of the public sees themselves as Dr Jekyll. Deep down, they know that Mr. (or Mrs.) Hyde exists inside them, but they tell themselves that Dr Jekyll has Hyde under control. Jekyll’s logic and reason can tame Hyde's wild and impulsive sexuality. However, whilst they might believe this about their own sexual desires, they don't extend that same analysis to other people. They worry that other people don't have the same control that they do. It's a bit like people's relationship with advertising. You tell yourself that other people can be persuaded by it because they are less intelligent and more gullible, but you are immune to it because you can see through the advertiser's lies.

This is why there is so much focus on sex offenders being impulsive. They are regarded like the others, who cannot see through the advertising.  Their Dr. Jekyll is absent, and their Hyde is much closer to the surface, ready to act on the slightest whim or sexual thought.

At the same time, there is another sexual offender stereotype, who confounds the notion of inherent impulsivity. This is the Machiavellian manipulator, who, rather than acting impulsively, plots silently. This manipulator grooms his victims carefully, for many years, before acting. He is the polar opposite of the impulsive, situational offender, who acts without thinking. Nevertheless, the public has successfully incorporated the two opposing typologies into their other, with an extraordinary act of doublethink.  Sex offenders are perceived as both uncontrollable and impulsive, whilst being fiendishly cunning manipulators, at the same time.

Then there is the idea of constant, unchanging, sexual orientations, interests, and preferences. As my [supervising agent] put it to me, once. "Do you prefer football or rugby? Some people just prefer men, some just prefer women."  The subtext of this conversation, which he didn't put into words, was that some people just prefer adults and some people just prefer children and that's just the way it is.

He was tapping into an idea that is very common, and widely held nowadays, which is that a person's sexual preferences, interests, and orientation are not their choices. It's just genetic. Something you are born with and have to live with forever. The reason this matters is that to [supervising agents] and the general public, a person who has a sexual preference for children, will have that preference forever. It will never go away. That means it is incurable. That means the best outcome a sexual offender can ever hope to achieve, is to control those feelings and not act on them. But even the ones who don't act, are still wanting to act and will do so, if they ever get the chance. So, it is a simple equation, in the public mind. Sexual orientation can never be cured, therefore sexual offending can never be cured.

What is the solution to this flawed perception?

Reactions from criminal justice professionals vary. I always try to humanize myself to them, by telling them about my childhood traumas. I explain that I lost all my trust in people, as a result of that trauma and this is why I struggle with intimacy as an adult. I suspect though, that most offenders do not do this. For most offenders, discussing these issues with a police officer, who has just invaded their home, is too stressful and shameful. A lot of sex offenders, whose trust in other people has been catastrophically harmed, by trauma and whose faith in humanity has been so terribly compromised, will see the police as just another person who doesn't care about them and wants to harm them. They may tell the police nothing about their life story or they may get defensive, which will just cause the police officer to regard them as hostile, and thus the police will see them as being a higher risk, as a result. 

Probation listen more and most now understand that offenders have been traumatized. They are slowly beginning to understand the effects of adverse childhood experiences on people's adult offending and they recognize that offenders use minimization and denial, as a defense against shame and not to avoid responsibility for their actions.

But the police listen less because they have been trained to see all SOs as devious and manipulative and because police culture perpetuates the urban myth that all sex offenders are liars. Therefore, police find it harder to listen, since they assume that the offender is only telling them these things, in order to manipulate them.

Nevertheless, the solution is still to humanize sex offenders and tell their stories of trauma and childhood adversity, as often and as loudly as possible, so that they are no longer feared. As the fear goes away, so will the hatred and the othering. Creating empathy for sex offenders, in wider society, will not be easy. You will be accused of being soft on crime, but it must at least be attempted.

Most often, when I read about sexual offending in the media, it tells me nothing about the offender. It only gives details of their crimes. Nobody can empathize with that. But occasionally, we do get glimpses into the offender’s life. I have seen tales of men who offended, after suffering unbearable trauma. A man, who had lost his wife and both children to illness, prior to his offending. Another who had an illness, which left him confined to his home 24 hours a day, and who then offended on the internet. These are not coincidences. Trauma and offending are inextricably linked together. That is the message that must be conveyed.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Getting Our Priorities Right.

 By David S. Prescott, LICSW & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

A scan of the media recently has left much to be desired. There is a new documentary about the film director Woody Allen and allegations of sexual abuse made against him in the 1990s. From the article:

Back in 1992, Allen, then 57, admitted he was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, 21, the adopted daughter of his long-term partner, Farrow . . . Several months after that, at the height of their viciously acrimonious break-up, Farrow accused Allen of molesting Dylan, who was then seven, one afternoon while she was out of the house. Doctors examined Dylan and found no evidence of abuse. Allen was investigated by the Yale-New Haven Hospital’s sexual abuse clinic which concluded: ‘It is our opinion that Dylan was not sexually molested by Mr. Allen.’ He was also investigated by New York State’s Department of Social Services, which wrote: ‘No credible evidence was found that the child named in this report has been abused or maltreated.’

On the surface, the media coverage is an interesting look at what remains known about this case. From our perspective, it is sad that so many individuals have almost completely disregarded the professionals who conducted official examinations in favor of a trial-by-media approach to a decades-old scandal.

It was tempting to write the Allen case off as a slow news cycle, except that then the Looney Tunes skunk character, Pepe Le Pew, also came to grief when multiple media accounts covered his character’s retirement. Considerable discussion ensued, and in one social media context an expert complained that, as a species, skunks do not engage in rape; at least, not in the way that other animals do (mallard ducks frequently receive mention in this context). In some ways, the Le Pew verdict is timely; his advances towards Penelope Pussycat were never acceptable and were doubtless confusing to some who had experienced abuse. At the same time, we have never met anyone that understood the cartoons of that era as articles of faith.

More seriously, there is also the scandal involving New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Adding to the seriousness of the allegations are damaging photos of unwanted advances made in public. The fact that it is happening at an inopportune time of other scandals is certainly not helping. Multiple leaders from both major parties have called on him to resign. As of this writing, he has refused. Clearly here, there are multiple and competing perspectives, from “he needs to step down now” to “many politicians, including recent presidents, have done worse and didn’t resign.”

Meanwhile, one news story basely attracted any attention at all. USA Today has described the rising tide of domestic violence during the pandemic. Their numbers, derived from a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, are grim. From that study:

Data from US police departments provide some early insight into the effect COVID-19 has had on DV in some regions. For instance, in Portland, Oregon public schools closed March 16, 2020, and on March 23 came stay-at-home orders. Following these events, the Portland Police Bureau recorded a 22% increase in arrests related to DV compared to prior weeks. In San Antonio, Texas schools closed March 20, 2020 and stay-at-home orders came March 24. The San Antonio Police Department subsequently noted they received an 18% increase in calls pertaining to family violence in March 2020 compared to March 2019. In Jefferson County Alabama, the Sheriff's Office reported a 27% increase in DV calls during March 2020 compared to March 2019. In New York City schools closed March 16, 2020 and stay-at-home orders started on March 22, 2020. During the month of March, the New York City Police Department responded to a 10% increase in DV reports compared to March 2019.

The stark relief between media attention to the behaviors of celebrities and cartoon figures and the genuine human suffering, experienced disproportionately by our society’s most vulnerable members, could not be clearer. The amount of violence in our communities was already unacceptable pre-pandemic, has gotten worse, and yet goes almost unnoticed. A search of Google’s news site on each of these items makes clear that finding out many of the true costs of the pandemic remains a real challenge. Perhaps it is because actress Mia Farrow and Pepe Le Pew make for better visual content in media accounts. Maybe it’s because we would prefer to see our leaders taken down than to see our most desperate neighbors given a hand up. Maybe it is because we can’t look at what’s really happening anymore?

Perhaps a broader perspective is called for. Maybe we are not seeing and/or are denying a societal cognitive schema whereby it is easier to target individuals and individual actions rather than examine societal causes and consequences. The #MeToo movement has demonstrated that sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and domestic violence is as much about community and societal issues as individual and interpersonal ones. Once again, we need to step back from simply pathologizing those who perpetrate and are victimized by sexual aggression and understand each within a context. Yes, Woody Allen, Andrew Cuomo, and even Pepe le Pew have all acted badly, caused harm, and should be held accountable for their behavior; but where is the larger societal reflection, critical thinking, and change?

Simply saying publicly that these individuals are to blame, while privately acknowledging that they are a product of the system and reprimanding them but ignoring the wider systemic problems is no longer acceptable. A recent World Health Organization report has shown that violence against women and children is its own pandemic and, like with COVID-19, we need wholesale societal change to eradicate it. That that starts with individuals, communities, and the media.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

Civil commitment in the US: A federal lawsuit returns

 By David Prescott, LICSW, Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D., & Kieran McCartan, PhD

A large-scale challenge to civil commitment laws has re-emerged in the past few weeks, to the surprise of many, involving the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (although the suit could have involved virtually any of the 20 states’ and federal government’s programs). Minnesota’s program had been declared unconstitutional in a federal court in 2015. A federal appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that the judge had applied the wrong standard in his determination. The US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Now, an appeals court in Missouri has cleared the way for a reconsideration of this case. Readers are referred to the recent media coverage for a more comprehensive discussion.

For those who may not be aware, civil commitment, as applied to people who have committed sex crimes, involves legal proceedings that examine whether a person meets the criteria for a pre-disposing diagnosis (such as Pedophilic Disorder, with the application of many such diagnoses hotly contested across jurisdictions) and an appraisal of the person’s risk to commit further acts of sexual violence.  Many readers will be aware that virtually every aspect of civil commitment law in the US has been challenged in the courts and that the research behind the methods used in diagnosis and risk assessment has also been challenged at every turn. 

Civil Commitment has a complicated history internationally. Other countries have either no equivalent or very different versions of it. For instance, England and Wales had IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) sentences which were introduced in 2005 and abolished in 2012. They were determined to be unlawful by the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court in 2007 and a joint report by the chief inspectors of prisons and probation in 2020 concluded that IPP sentences were unsustainable with UK prison overcrowding. Although they are no longer handed down as of 30 June 2020, there were 8,954 (8,618 male: 336 female) determinate sentenced prisoners (those serving Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences and life sentences).

The Sexual Abuse blog has focused on this and related cases in the past, most recently in 2015 (in which the first author asked a number of questions related to ethics and human rights). What’s changed since then? Obviously, the laws do not appear to have changed. Readers of this blog will correctly infer our opinion that the societal context in which these programs operate has changed very little. By all appearances, though, the Minnesota program itself has worked to develop an infrastructure for releasing clients into conditional-release situations in the community, even if the decisions can be controversial within the hierarchies of state government.

Obviously, any lawsuit can be problematic for those directly involved. Why would this lawsuit be good news? Here are some ideas:

-          The clarity of a ruling is an opportunity to improve programming. As one prominent observer noted, it is the state’s job to ensure that the legal processes for release are in place and functioning. It’s each program’s responsibility to line clients up at the door and be ready for release as efficiently as possible. The importance of clarity in programming cannot be understated. Earlier this year, clients at the Minnesota program initiated a hunger strike with the intention of calling attention to what they felt was the absence of a clear pathway to release.

-          Lawsuits present an opportunity for state legislatures to get their acts together. To be blunt, by the time states are losing federal lawsuits, they’ve probably been in the wrong for quite some time. While no politician wants to risk being on the wrong side of public perceptions involving sex crimes, a review of the decade that this case has been active illustrates the dramatic need for change at the state legislature level.

-          Along these lines, the current lawsuit is an opportunity to reconsider the implementation and administration of these laws and perhaps devote more energy to preventing sexual violence in the first place.  With a budget in excess of $90 million in 2020, and the fact that MSOP treats only a small fraction of those convicted for sex crimes in Minnesota,  one wonders what kinds of prevention efforts might be possible were civil commitment laws to be used more responsibly.

-          The lawsuit is a reminder that we can also invest more in our prison-based treatment programs. Does it make society really safer if we lock them up for years and subsequently mandate them to follow a treatment program? Can we still expect sufficient positive outcomes from such delayed treatment programs? Although some prison-based treatment programs have led to controversy, we also know that both short and long prison sentences have little to no effect on recidivism rates. Investing in preventive interventions sooner in the process might lead to more positive treatment outcomes and is also expected to be more cost-effective.

-          The lawsuit further reminds us of the importance of research! Related to the other points, we should also invest more money and time into proper research programs into the mental disorders that these individuals are usually diagnosed with, which includes paraphilias and sometimes personality disorders. Taking the bulk of research on sexual violence into regard, it is striking to note that still relatively little is known about the development and manageability of abuse-related paraphilias, and how they relate to sexual violent behavior in some individuals, but not in others. These insights are however highly needed if we want to offer well-founded reasons for hope to both these individuals as well as society.

-          The lawsuit reminds the community of the reality of punishment and rehabilitation. Quite often communities dismiss and collectively forget about the lives of people incarcerated in prisons unless it directly involves them or the families. The current lawsuit puts conversations about the role, structure, and function or incarceration, treatment, and risk reduction back into the community frame. It reminds people about the reality of punishment and why it should matter to them. This and other lawsuits can remind us all of the realities of indeterminate incarceration and begs questions about the most effective and efficient ways to rehabilitate people. It’s never as simple as locking them away.