Down silky roads to the deep dark web – a twilight zone with no guide

Shaun Bettridge, Manager, Forensics

The deep web, darknet, silky roads, bits of coins and chains made from blocks, the Internet is starting to become a complicated place.

So, how are the Internet, dark net, and deep net different from each other and how does a journey there affect you? As I work in forensic technology these are questions I often field from friends, family and clients so I have put together a handy guide.

Let me give you a crash course.

The Internet is a group of connected computers that use a specific set of rules to talk to each other.

It’s our day-to-day survival toolkit we love and hate, a window to the rest of the world and an invaluable resource. For the most part, we access the Internet through websites and phone apps. We email, chat, search, read, view, waste time and buy. Most of us can’t imagine life without it. Except my grandma, but that’s a story for another day.

The data you see on web pages is divided into two categories, the surface web and the deep web. The surface web is searchable within engines like Google and Bing; the deep web is not. The deep web contains the non-searchable web pages. These pages include your search results on eBay, your chat messages on Gumtree or your online banking information. These details are online and viewable to you but hidden from search engines.

A significant amount of our work within Forensic Technology is investigating data breaches, when protected deep web information becomes public. As this information isn’t something you can simply stumble upon it is usually the result of a concerted effort from a hacker. Something we see on a regular basis.

The deep web is often mistakenly confused with darknet or dark web. While both the deep web and the darknet are not searchable on your favourite search engines, this is where the similarities end. Any perceived overlap is unhelpful as the underlying technologies differ.

Before we get into the more controversial side of it, I want to distinguish between darknet and dark web. Darkweb is to darknet what web pages are to the Internet. Darkweb makes up the visible pages contained on the darknet.

The darknet operates in a similar way to the Internet except it’s shrouded in privacy and anonymity, and the rules of communication are different to ensure this. This cloak of privacy on the darknet lends itself to both its name and nature. It’s like pass the parcel, only the first person who packed it and the last person who receives it know what’s inside, everyone else just passes on the information.

Most users of the darknet are confident of their anonymity, and this leads to nefarious marketplaces and a lawless, post-apocalyptic Mad Max-Esque online community. While smaller communities are not without rules, unlike the Internet the lawless nature stems from the inability to effectively police this technology. But that is also an article for another day.

The darknet is not foolproof. Many believe anonymity is part of the darknet package but this is not guaranteed. A new user can easily find themselves being tracked without even realising; clues left and trails created, thwarting the efforts of the technology and leaving behind artefacts for forensic investigators like myself.

The darknet community has its own economy with its own currencies, the major being Bitcoin.

Bitcoin is a transparent but anonymous virtual currency. Every transaction is public, yet the identity of those transacting is not known. It is like mailboxes with transparent doors in an apartment block, everyone can see how much mail in each box, but you don’t know who has the key.

Bitcoin uses a technology known as Blockchain to operate.

I like to think of Blockchain as trust technology, where the validity of an interaction, such as a Bitcoin transaction, is endorsed by a community. It is a way to decentralise authentication, an alternative to having a single source of truth, such as a financial institution having the only record of how much money you have. With Blockchain, all the members of the community can have their own copy of the complete ledger while still retaining personal anonymity.

The community authenticates who you are and what you have and community consensus is needed before any transaction can take place. This can take a matter of seconds. This technology has many applications outside of Bitcoin, such as personal identity. I have no doubt we will hear a lot more about it and its applications.

All of these technologies are growing in both acceptance and impact; and at the same time a misunderstanding of how they operate and their purpose is also growing. The current domain is a complex mix with between these new technologies’ use and misuse. This only increases the complexity of our forensic investigations.

Follow up questions? Feel free to ask me using the comments box.

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