The Tor anonymity network is a special place. Not as something “new” or even fantastically disruptive as it is often characterised, but as a place online where many seek to recapture some original Internet ideals. You won’t find many social media buttons, adverts or particularly flashy websites, but instead you will find denizens that value privacy, and the security and freedom that is realised when the small premium of a brief technical inconvenience is paid.
The Tor dark web, often confusingly referred to as the deep web, is an internet secured within Tor’s highly anonymised and encrypted darknet network. The powerful anti-surveillance and anti-censorship tool provides much improved internet user privacy and security, as well empowering political dissidents and whistle blowers to communicate freely.
However, the network’s association with cybercrime activities has led to the proliferation of creatively disturbing urban legends and half-truths, a state of affairs that in this author’s opinion is the preference of many institutions. That said, holding open discussions of the subject matter may be simply all it takes to separate fact from fiction.
Ever since in 2011 when Ross Ulbricht  built the Silk Road marketplace, integrating Bitcoin escrow payments with a user feedback system, cybercrime has been headed toward all-time levels of openness, stability and profitability. Not only did the darknets and emergent cryptocurrencies become a conduit for one of the world’s largest illegal economies, but so did the postal services of the western world. Today post-Silk Road, there are tens of thousands of narcotic listings across dozens of major and minor marketplaces, connected with hundreds of vendors, and over a million end consumers when factoring the buyers who resale. The process is safe, secure and the vast majority of the time if you’re not satisfied you can get your money back. With massively reduced violence associated with street dealing, increased purity and accountability of products, the system operates more like a loose-association of online businesses and e-commerce start-ups than any kind of traditional drug cartel.
However, when you run an almost no-holes barred criminal marketplace, you attract less ethically defensible commerce too. A portion of the English-speaking carding scene operates within many of the darknet markets, contributing to the highly regimented process of breaking into computer systems to steal payment and identity information and then laundering the data for profit. The carding and fraud scene as a whole has been estimated at over a billion USD and other than some activity moving more towards eastern Europe, the growth of this shadow information economy shows little signs of slowing.
Of course no one loves fraud more than another fraudster, and many naive Bitcoin-owning darknet denizens are easy prey for scammers. From “double your bitcoins” to the supposed availability of live-streamed murder and internet assassins there’s always something new that people want to believe may be for sale in this poorly understood digital frontier. And they usually end up getting ripped off.
Law enforcement wages a slow but reliable battle against the worst of the illegal pornography, as well as the unreliable online arms trade and smaller amount of terrorist activity. Such actions sometimes turn law enforcement into hackers themselves, often using black and grey hat tactics around de-anonymising user names, spreading malware and subverting communication channels. The new frontier where anyone can potentially be hacked as a part of a general investigation is setting new technical and legal precedents in mass surveillance and privacy technologies.
At the other end of the privacy spectrum to the darknets, the Cloudflare network security service, which is utilised by millions of websites for security and performance, recently came in conflict with the Tor project itself. Faced with ever-escalating hostility to Tor exit nodes, Cloudflare itself become classified as a new adversary type. In a public capitulation, Cloudflare was forced to quickly improve its captcha and Tor support when faced with the possibility of a boycott from the project.
The UK government is currently attempting to rush through the IP Bill, a.k.a. Snooper’s Charter, over the coming year, forcing such moves as mandating that internet service providers must retain citizens’ browsing history, mandating decryptable communications in many cases and to effectively legalise the hacking of all personal computing devices. However, the ongoing online conflicts between law enforcement agencies, private intelligence organisations, state-sponsored and independent hackers, tech-savvy fraudsters and drug vendors is incomprehensible to a largely apathetic public.
The evolution of the internet continues to both mirror and shape society with its brightly lit CCTV-covered shopping centres through to its vibrant but disreputable neighbourhoods. Watching the edges of cyberspace developing day by day, there’s one thing that we can’t do, and that’s moving back to the net we once knew.