Did you know that there’s another internet? It was created by the military to facilitate anonymous communications that couldn’t be tracked by civilians or foreign enemies. It requires special software, such as Tor browsers, to access. Because it’s anonymous and difficult to search, it is now also used by criminals and terrorists for a range of illegal activities. It’s called the Dark Web.
Chris Mattmann is an expert on this mysterious online world. As Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at JPL, he worked with DARPA to help develop MEMEX, the first-ever catalog of the Dark Web, now used by national law enforcement agencies. He spoke to me about the good guys and bad guys of this “new Wild West” (answers lightly edited for length).
JG: What sort of crimes take place on the Dark Web?
CM:Illicit activities including hitmen, human organ sales, child exploitation, typically with anonymized money transactions in cryptocurrency used to pay for them. The most famous Dark Web activity was the Silk Road, the drug trafficking site busted by the FBI.
JG: That sounds dangerous.
CM: It presents challenges for traditional bulk collection and law enforcement monitoring. Today we have a lot of capability with MEMEX, and with advancements in web crawlers, and machine learning and AI. But the bad actors are constantly changing their practices, and trying to stay ahead of law enforcement. It’s an arms race on both sides.
JG: Who is that law enforcement, at least in the United States?
CM: If it’s related to US investigations and US persons, the FBI typically gets involved. If it’s for abroad, the CIA. If it’s domestic, DHS and its associated facilities like CISA [the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency]. So, the reality is that it’s fractured
Additionally, local law enforcement also require the ability to collect/monitor on the Dark Web but most often lack the resources, so they must develop partnerships with upstream law enforcement partners who have those capabilities
JG: Anonymity can be a good thing. How can we crack down on the dark web without exposing whistleblowers, political dissidents, and the like?
CM: The Dark Web doesn’t change the ways that we maintain confidentiality of existing sources, dissidents, whistleblowers, etc. In fact, in some cases, since monitoring isn’t full monitoring and capabilities due to the nature of encryption, or due to the nature of the anonymous protocol that TOR/Onion routing involves, it actually strengthens the ability and decentralized nature of maintaining this protection. But overall the Dark Web is just another network, where the same methods can still be applied to allow anonymity.
CM: Most likely no, because they are not engaging in those types of illicit activities on the Dark Web.
JG: What do you think is the future of the dark web?
CM: The anonymization and encryption makes it ideal even knowing that bad actors and law enforcement and others are all watching in some form. But they don’t have a complete picture. Because of this, it’s still like the Wild West and will remain that way.
The future of it is that these environments are ripe for bad activity to go on and continue. The arms race to monitor, learn, identify, and stop bad activity here will continue. I don’t see it changing in the foreseeable future. However, the automation brought about by bot networks, deep fakes, machine learning and AI will make it so that you can’t be sure if the person you are talking to on the other end, or watching is real or some indirect actor. This is the biggest emerging challenge.
Jason Ginsburg writes about science and science fiction. He is a digital producer for Discovery Channel and lives in New York City.