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) 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.
 Finklea, Kristin. Dark Web. Congressional Research Service, 10 Mar. 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44101.pdf.