In the same way that a shower curtain protects you from a killer with a kitchen knife, the internet protects you and your personal data from the prying eyes of surveillance.
Government agencies, tech giants, advertisers, and others want to use your data to further their interests. These interests range from the annoying, like targeting you with personalized ads, to the dangerous, like monitoring your communications and interactions. As data-driven computing continues to grow and reshape how we use digital technology, data is slowly becoming the most valuable commodity in the world.
Throughout its short and extremely active life, the internet has grown from a rudimentary communication space to the foundation of the contemporary world. Due to this ubiquity, it has become nearly impossible to protect or anonymize yourself online. At any moment, you can safely assume that your location, communications, and interactions are being used by companies however they choose.
A desire for online privacy spurred the creation of the first dark web browser, known as Tor. Developed by the US Navy starting in 2001 and spun off in 2006, Tor uses sophisticated encryption and multiple intermediate relays to make user data impossible to trace and collect. In a world where data is power, protecting user identities was a huge leap forward. Finally, those who feared persecution, monitoring, or government surveillance had an outlet to express their ideas and communicate with others.
Duality in the dark web
With the power of anonymity on a worldwide scale, Tor quickly became the host of the world’s largest markets for illegal narcotics, illegal pornography (often including child pornography), firearm sales, hitmen, hacking for hire services, and much worse. This was enabled by the advent of Bitcoin in 2009, the world’s first cryptocurrency — decentralized and anonymous.
Prior to the advent of cryptocurrency, the dark web primarily served as a way to share illegal files without being caught. But following the first wave of Bitcoin-enabled markets, business took off. Some estimate that cybercrime generates 1.5 trillion USD annually in illicit sales. The magnitude of this problem shouldn’t be overlooked; Tor has given refuge to those wanting to abuse children, distribute laced drugs, and extort money or information from innocent people. Anonymity allows this to happen.
On the other hand, anonymity also provides safety. In some capacity, the dark web is like an online escape hatch — journalists, activists, whistleblowers, and oppressed citizens often turn to it to avoid censorship. In the wake of mass human rights violations following the re-election of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in 2018, Venezuelan Tor usage exploded. Jumping from less than 5,000 users in January to over 40,000 by June 25, it was such a powerful circumvention of government censorship that Maduro’s government blocked access nationwide.
For applications like these, anonymity provides a safeguard against broken systems.
In countries under strict government control, people can be freed from censorship and fear of arrest for online dissent. Anonymous tip websites for news publications, forums for civil discussion, and protection for citizens of oppressive states are all enabled by online privacy.
The dark web also breeds creative technological innovation which may shape the future of mainstream internet use. Despite operating in the shadows, ducking law enforcement and lacking resources, the next generation of cryptographers still manage to stay one step ahead of most governments. Many of their innovations are related to abstract methods of encryption and could have significant applications if adapted into mainstream technology.
The illegal marketplaces on the dark web have ingenious ways of ensuring that anonymity doesn’t get in the way of business. Vendors, which have no inherent reliability, rely on positive feedback from buyers to maintain sales. This review system encourages competition and user-friendly practices. Prices and quality expectations rise and fall with supply and demand; sellers offer coupons and return policies. This leads to a surprisingly consumer-friendly experience. While making a Schedule I narcotic easy to buy is absolutely detrimental to society, these markets, which conduct billions in online sales, demonstrate the capabilities of anonymous purchasing. Competitive, consumer safe, anonymous economies are viable online — and that’s very powerful.
When a user buys a product, the payment is held by the marketplace until the sender can provide proof that the product has been sent, and the buyer can confirm they received the product. Then at least two of the parties involved — buyer, seller, and site administrator — must sign off on the sale using an encrypted digital signature to release the payment. This, of course, requires trust in the marketplace itself from both seller and buyer; other than getting shut down by law enforcement, exit scams by marketplaces stopping orders and vanishing have occurred. Nevertheless, in the face of possible fraud at every turn, illegal markets maintain viability through a series of checks and balances, just like our current systems.
The quest to evade law enforcement and regulation is an arms race. Bitcoin, despite having anonymous user credentials, stores all transactions made on a public ledger, which records who sent and who received the money. Law enforcement are able to identify users by the volume of network communications, ultimately matching payment history with other personal details to make arrests.
But newer methods of strengthening user privacy are continually being developed. One example of this is zk-SNARK (zero-knowledge succinct non-interactive argument of knowledge), which allows cryptocurrency transactions to be verified without revealing or knowing either the sender or the reciever. These cryptographic breakthroughs, advanced forms of user-side encryption, and more have enabled the growth of untraceable interaction across the world. While these developments currently prop up the highest concentration of illegal trade ever, they are the only existing structures in place that can genuinely protect users’ privacy. The creativity of those seeking to protect Tor’s sanctity is one of the foremost drivers of cryptographic innovation.
There is no doubt that the dark web has failed in its goal of enabling mainstream privacy. Despite Tor’s sheltering of whistleblowers and those seeking to do good, it is also responsible for spawning an unprecedented distribution network of illegal goods and services. Thanks in part to the cryptocurrency revolution over the last decade, the dark web shows no signs of slowing down.
That said, everyday internet users will never switch to Tor. The danger that lies behind every link is too ominous for mainstream adoption. But its scale, innovation, and longevity proves one thing: online privacy is possible.
As the internet reaches further into our lives, there is a growing discomfort with the idea that large corporations and agencies will always have access to us. For people who want to go about their online lives without being spied on, the framework is here. The dark web, despite its ugliness, offers an alternative. Tor will be the backbone of the fight against destructive legislation, corrupt governments, and systemic oppression.
The real test will come at the adaptation of these technologies into the mainstream. Over the last decade, blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrency, has seen widespread implementation across every corner of the tech industry to decentralize data. The encryption techniques and protection practices of dark web users could be retrofitted to existing technologies to give users more control over what they want to share.
In the end, is anonymity worth it? The internet without legal ramifications has spawned the most sophisticated, deadly, and disgusting markets in the modern world. It also created an environment for Edward Snowden to alert the world of gross mass surveillance from his government. One could not have happened without the other.
Maybe one day, we can reconcile the victories and failures of both faces of the internet to develop a platform that could be anonymous and free, while retaining the data-driven, highly intelligent developments of the surface web. I hope that one day, we realize the serious consequences behind digital interaction and start treating users as humans, not just as ones and zeros.