Huge raid shuts down over 400 ‘dark net’ sites

Taken into custody: This notice now greets users trying to access one of the criminal websites.

It's the internet’s ‘Wild West’ frontier and the haunt of criminals, but also a place of freedom and creativity. Security agencies are getting a grip on the dark net, but is this good news?

Bomb-making instructions, extremists websites, class A drugs and assassins for hire. These are just some of the troubling things available on the ‘dark net’, a vast, unregulated part of the internet hidden to most users. It has long been a major concern for the world’s authorities, but they have just had a major breakthrough.

A joint operation between US and European cybercrime agencies has shut down 400 dark net illegal sites and arrested 17 people. A major victory was shutting down Silk Road 2.0, which sold and delivered hard drugs to 150,000 monthly users and generated at least £5m monthly in sales. One site sold people’s personal details to fraudsters, another offered to break into Facebook accounts.

These websites existed on a part of the internet that can only be accessed with a ‘Tor Browser’, special software first developed by the US Navy that keeps users anonymous. Rather than connecting straight to a website, it ‘bounces’ a user’s connection across multiple ‘volunteer’ computers first, so that it is very hard for the website to trace the original connection.

While Tor attracts criminals, the majority of its roughly 3m users simply wish to protect their privacy. Last year, former US intelligence officer Edward Snowden revealed that US and UK agencies have huge surveillance programmes that monitor millions of ordinary users’ data. Even mundane shopping websites try to track their users’ online steps.

Tor allows users to remain anonymous. Many use it to escape internet censorship in oppressive countries such as Iraq and China, and journalists regularly use it to gather sensitive information from whistleblowers.

This latest crackdown shows that security services are getting to grips with some of the dark net’s worst criminals. But many worry that it means that even on this wild frontier of the internet, privacy can no longer be assured.

Caught in the web

Some say that the dark net is a lair for all of the worst aspects of humanity and they are glad that progress is being made in controlling it. While privacy is a fine ideal, people clearly abuse it for selling poisons, weapons and abusive images. It is better to lose some privacy and be monitored online than to let terrorists and criminals thrive.

Yet for all its flaws, many dark net users refuse to condemn it. Few people would dispute our right to privacy, and the anonymity on the dark net provides a vital avenue to freedom in oppressed parts of the world. Of course the worst abuses of the dark net make headlines, but, as its creator says, ‘when you create a technology, it’s a tool that anybody can use for good or ill ... you have to trust society broadly to do good things’.

You Decide

  1. Is it a good thing that the dark net is becoming more regulated or is it a threat to our right to privacy online?
  2. What limits should be placed on individual freedom and privacy?

Activities

  1. Class debate: ‘It is more important to be safe from harm than to be free.’
  2. Using the links in become an expert, research how the dark net works. Make a presentation on what makes it different from the ordinary ‘clear web’.

Some People Say...

“Humans are too flawed to be given total freedom. They need rules and limits.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about online privacy?
Because we generally think that our activities should be only our own business unless we are breaking the law. People working for the state, whether civil servants or the police, should not be able to investigate us without good reason. Online or offline, we don’t expect or want constant surveillance — imagine having CCTV cameras in your home!
Should I be using Tor?
Not really. There are other simpler steps you can take to keep your privacy online. Software is widely available which allows users to encrypt their files, which makes them much more difficult to steal, and browsers like Chrome now come with ‘Do not track’ buttons. If you are thinking about downloading new apps or software, search for online reviews to check they are trustworthy first.

Word Watch

Dark net
Also known as the 'deep web', the dark net refers to any part of the web that is not ordinarily accessible. It is thought to be 500 times the size of the surface web. However, much of this is made up of webpages not available to the public, such as a person’s email inbox.
Silk road 2.0
The original Silk Road was shut down last year, but a replacement soon sprang up. Web watchers think it will not be long until a Silk Road 3 fills the void.
Navy
The US Navy wanted to be able to search the internet anonymously using Tor, but realised if it were the only entity using Tor’s distinctive scrambled code, it would be pretty easy to work out what it was visiting. It therefore decided to make it available to the public.
Whistleblowers
People who want to expose their companies or organisations who might be in danger. Edward Snowden himself was a whisteblower and used Tor to reveal his secrets to newspapers in 2013.
Creator
Mathematician Paul Sylverson had been working with the US Navy to create Tor since 1995. Overall, he thinks Tor has been a force for good.

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