What is the dark web?

23 February 2016

Question

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

Answer

Kat put this one to Peter Cowley...

Peter - Well let's 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 - it's 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 - that's 25 quadrillion pages out there.

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

Peter - Stuff that the search engine can't get at, so stuff where you've got to have logged in. So you log into say your bank account or whatever.

Kat - Or a corporate intranet or something like that?

Peter - Exactly. But something where you've got throught the internet to get to it. Something where the web page changes depending on certain factors. That is absolutely astronomical and it's 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 what's 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 didn't 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. It's all completely hidden from anything else.

Chris - The Tor browser isn't it?

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

Kat - So people are using this completely anonymous function to do some, I'm 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 selling.

Kat - It's basically sex and drugs isn't it?

Peter - It's 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. There's a whole stack of security forces who are trying to dig around there because they'll 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 shouldn't worry about it. There's plenty of criminality going on anyway. I don't think you should worry about it.

Kat - Exactly. Stuart.

Stuart - Yes and there's 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 it's kind of come a full circle and they're 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 we're 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 you're monitoring it. It's kind of good in some respects, isn't it?

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

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