Science Questions

What is the dark web?

Tue, 23rd Feb 2016

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Question

Abby Sethu asked:

What is the dark web and should we be worried about it?

Answer

Kat put this one to Peter Cowley...Dark Web

Peter - Well letís define that first.  So the web that we know usually which is the stuff you can get at by a search engine, Google or Bing or something - itís about 50 billion pages nowadays.  Now the next level down is so-called the deep web.  This is not accessible by a search engine.  This is massively bigger, this is 500 times bigger - thatís 25 quadrillion pages out thereÖ

Kat - What sort of stuff is in the deep web then?

Peter - Stuff that the search engine canít get at, so stuff where youíve got to have logged in.  So you log into say your bank account or whateverÖ

Kat - Or a corporate intranet or something like that?

Peter - Exactly.  But something where youíve got throught the internet to get to it.  Something where the web page changes depending on certain factors.  That is absolutely astronomical and itís probably immeasurable and part of the deep web, i.e. difficult to get at, is called the dark web and that is minute in comparison.  This is probably just a few tens or low hundreds of thousands of pages, so absolutely tiny.

Kat - So whatís in this dark web and then how do you get to it?

Peter - Well first of all how you get to it.  For the research for this programme I didnít dare go onto it because you have to load some rather dodgy looking software onto your PC or your laptop.  So you get to it by having some special software on your  machine which then, effectively, completely anonymises you and all the traffic which goes over the public internet.  Itís all completely hidden from anything else.

Chris - The Tor browser isnít it?

Peter - The Tor browser, exactly.  So you have used it have you Chris?  Weíll talk about that later

Kat - So people are using this completely anonymous function to do some, Iím sure, completely non-nefarious things?  But also we do hear about nefarious things.

Peter - Yes, so the nefarious thing is the dark web itself.  Really dodgy stuff you know, buying and sellingÖ

Kat - Itís basically sex and drugs isnít it?

Peter -   Itís sex and drugs exactly, and weapons.  But also the terrorists use it - anything where you want to hide yourself completely away.  And so, are we worried about it?  Probably not.  I mean there are people who are worried about it, the NSA, GCHQ and MI6.  Thereís a whole stack of security forces who are trying to dig around there because theyíll be able to generate all kinds of information which will lead to criminals being found, but I think as a normal member of the population we shouldnít worry about it.  Thereís plenty of criminality going on anyway.  I donít think you should worry about it.

Kat - Exactly. StuartÖ

Stuart - Yes and thereís a real irony behind this as well, because the Tor router, the Onion router which you referred to.  This software was developed originally by the U.S. government as a means, so itís kind of come a full circle and theyíre now trying to hack something that was originally developed as a government project.  And it really goes to the heart of that debate of privacy and encryption that weíre currently having.

Chris - Also, if you want to catch people doing naughty things, you need to allow them to do the naughty thing in a way that you can monitor.  So actually having the dark web there, in a way that you can monitor it but without them knowing youíre monitoring it.  Itís kind of good in some respects, isnít it?

Stuart - Well it depends, yes.  And this is the challenge. Tor is not foolproof.  We donít really understand; we donít know exactly how anonymous things are and, actually, true anonymity on the web is a very hard thing to achieve.

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