Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Behind the dark net curtains.

Jamie Bartlett's Monday night talk at London Skeptics in the Pub, The Dark Net, was, without a doubt, one of the finest I've ever attended. His amiable, conversational, well-informed, and gifted delivery was a delight and he steered clear of venturing too far into techy territory preferring to relate his experiences for laymen such as I.

I'd not gone in with high expectations but, having very rarely been let down when attending these Skeptical events, was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. I'm so glad I did. It was one of those evenings when I returned home, on the Overground, feeling a wiser person than the one who'd set out a few hours earlier.

Jamie is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think-tank Demos and he's written a book, also titled The Dark Net, in which he tells of the two years he spent immersed in some of the internet's most shocking and subversive subcultures. If the book, which I've not had the chance to read yet, is anywhere near as engrossing as the talk he gave then it's easily earned its place on the Political Award shortlist and the Orwell Prize shortlist.

Jamie had three tales to tell us but before he started he gave us a bit of background about the dark net. It's not to be mistaken with the deep web. The deep web is that part of the internet you've probably heard people talking about, saying that something like 96% of the entire internet is there compared to the surface web, the pages a Google search will turn up. The vast majority of the deep web is long and boring databases pretty much impenetrable to anyone not involved with it. The dark net, or web, also can't be found on Google searches but there the similarity ends.

The dark net web addresses don't end in .com or etc; but in .onion. The addresses themselves don't make a lot of sense. They're lengthy, and virtually impossible to remember, strings of letters and numbers created with the intention of denying access to surfers and general internet users. You have to actively know where these sites are to log on to them. They also mask your location. Jamie spoke of an experiment he carried out where, whilst logged on the dark net, he used a location finder. It found him in many other countries but not anywhere near where he actually was.

It won't be a leap to discover that these sites are particularly popular with criminals, pornographers, and people with something to hide. Sometimes people use it for the simple reason they're paranoid about online surveillance but mostly people who find themselves in the frontier parts of town are there for a reason.

Mind you, it's not as if there isn't all sorts lurking on the day to day web and that's where Jamie's first story came from. From the website 4chan, a site that birthed both the Anonymous and the alt-right movements. Everyone posting on there posts under the name anonymous (that's why the hacktivist group chose that name) and the house rules seem to be no-one's allowed to be shocked. In fact a lot of what goes on seems to be a game of who can be the most shocking? A lot of the vile racist ideas that fuelled the rise of Donald Trump and Breitbart paid their dues on 4chan.

There's quite a lot of porn on there too and Jamie, in the name of work of course, was watching live one day. There'd been a young lady posting nude photos of herself. She'd been posing in positions requested by other 4chan members but she'd not given out her identity. She responded to a request to write her name across her breasts by writing just her first name. She responded to a request to pose with any 'meds' she was taking by posing with a bottle of pills. Viewers zoomed in, saw her address on the side of the bottle and, within minutes, had identified her, hacked her Facebook account and sent her naked pictures to every Facebook friend she had - old schoolmates, parents, everyone. Nice people.

Discovering someone's true identity is called doxing, a neologism evolved from the word documents, and it's pretty obvious just how harmful this kind of behaviour can be. Those on 4chan who tried to prevent others from doxing this particular victim were given pretty short shrift, told to fuck off basically. This story demonstrated vividly the dangers of internet use and but it also said, to me, that we need to police ourselves a bit better. At heart this was down to a human moral failing.

On the dark net proper Jamie visited the Silk Road. Not the ancient network of trade routes that led from China to the Mediterranean but an online black market operated as a Tor hidden service. Tor, whose onion routing enables the dark net, was created in the mid-90s by the US Navy. The Silk Road was created in February 2011, shut down by the FBI in October 2013, opened up again and shut down again (this time by Interpol AND the FBI) in November 2014. Silk Road 3.0 appeared soon after and is still running now.

You can buy pretty much what you want on there but if you're looking for groceries, books, or furniture there's easier ways to do it. So, predictably, it's used mainly for illegal goods. From stolen credit cards to child pornography. You can buy weapons on there but as you can buy a gun easily enough in Wal-Mart in the US it seems a bit of a faff to have to go about it the long way. You can, however, arrange assassinations on there. Most people don't want anyone to be assassinated though. But lots of people want to get high or self-medicate. So, of course, drugs are big on there. Really big.

The website is designed to look very similar to eBay and Amazon and even comes with user reviews and star ratings. If you're not happy with the goods/drugs you receive you can even report your dealer. It's obvious to see why this is such a success. No more hanging around the dodgy parts of town dealing with potentially violent criminals. Just use bitcoin to make your purchase and get your gear sent to an address that's not yours but you can access.

This has generally meant the purity of drugs has skyrocketed. It's probably good that they're not cut with all sorts of nasty shit but it's also a very real danger. People used to very low grade cocaine could be taking enough to cause them to overdose. A related, and very real, danger is that people, kids, with no experience, or knowledge, of drug use could be buying potentially lethal amounts. Again it's a modern day story but underpinned by an all too human moral dilemma.

Jamie's third trip (if you'll pardon the pun) took us to the world of the pro-ana blogs. A blogosphere of supposed support groups for those suffering, though they'd probably not use that word, from anorexia and other similar conditions. On the surface of it these 'support' networks sound like they might be helpful. What they've turned in to, however, is sites of one-upmanship where mostly young, often very young, women boast of how few calories they can get through the day on. Jamie showed us a few examples. They were frankly terrifying and, if pursued for even a fairly short length of time, life threatening.

Health professionals who visited the sites were, on the whole, banished as was anyone else who advised that anorexia was a problem and help should be sought rather than a slap on the back and encouragement to continue down this dangerous path. Jamie spoke of visiting suicide support sites and said these were actually less terrifying as often people were eventually persuaded to carry on living. His view was that the pro-ana sites were not helping one bit.

All of these tales suggest that there are parts of the internet that operate like the Wild West and, indeed, there clearly are. But even if a sheriff was sent there to police it how would that work? Would it be an infringement of people's liberties? How do you even police something that operates without borders? Where would you get the 'police' from? It seems absolutely certain there'd never be enough of them.

Jamie's talk, necessarily, raised a lot more questions than it answered. In the Q&A session after the break he completely wrongfooted me when answering a question about whether or not the internet was to blame or human nature. I'd have always said the latter and that everything we, as humans, invent (and corrupt) is down to our nature and not the technology itself. He felt that as generations were growing up never having known a non-internet age it was changing the way we behaved.

I chatted briefly with Jamie after the talk and he cited phantom vibration syndrome (when you think your phone's going off in your pocket but isn't) as a small, but concrete, example of how technology is changing our behaviour. I didn't have an answer for him so all I could do was thank him for a fascinating, enlightening, and thought-provoking talk. If you get a chance to hear him talk then take it up.

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