Futurist Thomas Frey: Have you ever run across a situation so frustrating that you wished you could hire a “fixer?”
Maybe it has to do with gangs moving into your neighborhood, or the local slumlord not willing to repair a dangerous situation, or a local politician taking bribes, or finding out that your husband is also married to someone else in another state.
My guess is that we’ve all run into problems that are outside of our ability to deal with and we need help. But the help we need is not the normal kind. We don’t have millions to throw at lawyers and we don’t have the time, patience, or resources to go though official channels.
Well, there may be another option, but it will involve you going over to the dark side… of the Internet.
The darknet, often referred to as the dark web, is the place where less-scrupulous people offer less-scrupulous solutions.
If you think I’m talking about murder-for-hire, you’re missing the 10,000 other possible intermediary steps involving everything from public shaming, to social media faux pas, fake IRS notices, identity corruption, denial of service attacks, or worst of all, frivolous lawsuits designed to meter out your own form of justice in unusually creative ways.
While this may sound like the latest episode of the TV show “Leverage,” new toolsets available on the darknet are enabling us to operate far outside traditional recourse with total anonymity.
Whether it’s whistleblowing, dissident protests, news leaks, or simple revenge, neither the perpetrator nor the implementer of the service will wish to be identified, but somehow the results justify the extraordinary measures taken.
Welcome to the dark side of the Internet where the grey areas of justice come in far more than 50 shades.
Commonly thought of as a “mafia marketplace” where illegal drugs are bought and sold, and human trafficking, child porn, and contract killings make all the headlines, the dark net is growing in its appeal with far less offensive offerings catering to a more mainstream audience.
Even though this tends to be an experimental playground for the dregs of society who manage to skirt the law with impunity, it’s unleashing some critically important innovations in the process.
Here’s why the benefits of the darknet will soon outweigh the downside, and nine significant predictions for the future.
A Little Darknet History
In the 1970s, shortly after the creation of the Internet forerunner, ARPANET was developed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a number of isolated, secretive networks begin to appear, giving rise to the term “darknet.”
In the 1980s, a series of problems with storing sensitive or illegal photos, videos, and data began to surface, causing a number of “data havens” to spring up, the informational equivalent of tax havens in the Caribbean.
As part of the dot com bubble in the late 1990s, Napster spawned a series of peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella, Freenet, and Kazaa, that operated with decentralized data hubs for trade and distribution of copyrighted music and movie files.
TOR, which is an acronym for its original project name, The Onion Routing project, was developed in the mid-1990s by United States Naval Research Laboratory as a way of protecting U.S. intelligence communications online. But it also has another natural constituency, those wanting to browse the darknet.
In 2009 the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto introduced Bitcoin, a form of untraceable cryptocurrency. Unlike previous digital currencies that failed because of security issues with hackers literally copying money, Bitcoin uses of an innovative public accounting ledger, the block chain, to prevent double spending.
In 2011 a popular blog publishes an exposé on Silk Road, a clandestine marketplace that “makes buying and selling illegal drugs as easy as buying used electronics.” Silk Road was like Amazon.com, only for crystal meth and LSD, a service available to Tor users with Bitcoin accounts. As a result, traffic to Silk Road surged, and the value of a Bitcoin jumps from around $10 to more than $30 within days.
In 2013 the FBI sets up a sting operation and shuts down Silk Road with the arrest of its founder Ross William Ulbricht. In 2 years, Silk Road had done $1.2 billion in sales. Instantly a number of other sites sprung up to fill the void.
Accessing the Darknet
The darknet is not a place. It’s not like the backroom of some nightclub where you pull back the curtain to reveal a whole different party happening in the background.
In fact it’s not even close to a party. Most of the darknet is comprised of academic resources maintained by universities and contains nothing even remotely sinister.
Accessing the hidden Internet is surprisingly easy. The most popular way to do it is using a service called Tor (or TOR), which stands for ‘The Onion Router’.
Since the original Silk Road was unmasked through a bug in a Captcha screen, dozens of Tor alternatives have surfaced like I2P, Tails, Subgraph OS, Cloudnymous, Freenet, Spotflux, Orbot, JonDo, Freepto, Psiphon, and Tunnelbear.
In general, it only takes two clicks from the Tor or Tor–alternative site and you’re ready to access the darknet. The Tor browser was originally built on top of the open-source code in Firefox, so the interface is familiar and easy to use.
Search engines for the darknet are different than browsers. The unindexed side of the Deep Web is estimated to be 500 times larger than what is captured by Google’s search engines. Even though specialized deep web search engines can uncover many unindexed sites, nothing is currently able to search it completely.
Deep web search engines include: Ahmia.fi, Deep Web Technologies, TorSearch and Freenet.
Tor web addresses don’t look like typical URLs. They are composed of a random-character string followed by .onion. As example, here’s the kind of URL you’ll run into: http://dppmfxaacucguzpc.onion/. This link will take you to a directory of darknet websites if you have Tor installed, but if you don’t, it will be completely inaccessible to you.
With Tor, you can find directories, wikis and free-for-all link dumps for anything you may be interested in on the darknet.
9 Critically Important Predictions for the Darknet
According to Jamie Bartlett, author of “The Dark Net,” 95% of darknet users give their merchants a five out of five star rating. Reputation is everything on the darknet, and even though people don’t use their real names, a reputable pseudonym name can be worth its weight in gold.
Bartlett estimated 20,000-30,000 sites exist in this censorship-free world visited by steady base of 2-3 million anonymous users, but only a small number actually cater to the illegal black market trade.
1.) The darknet will become even darker
Because of the difficult, inhospitable conditions the darknet operates in, the operators of darknet sites are always innovating, always thinking of ways of getting smarter, more decentralized, harder to censor, and yet, more customer-friendly.
With a history of cause-driven activities, extreme libertarians are continually trying to find new ways to become more anonymous and avoid detection by law enforcement agencies.
Even though the veil of secrecy is likely to become more digitally opaque, the darknet itself is destined to become far more mainstream.
2.) Every failure will spawn a dozen workarounds
What does six sigma anonymity look like?
In much the same way that hackers are constantly forcing tech companies to improve their security, every exposed darknet flaw will cause thousands of protectors to flock to the rescue and plug the leaks.
This global cat and mouse game is being played by some intensely bright cause-driven people. We are still a long ways from having companies offer darknet insurance to protect an individual’s anonymity, but it may not be that far off.
3.) Better UI/UX will dramatically lower the geek factor
User interface is often measured by click-to-access, load times, menu simplicity, and clear navigation schemes that take the guesswork out of finding your way around.
Some of the appeal of the darknet in the past has come from being the lucky one, fortunate enough to discover hidden gems inside a murky ocean of sludge. But efficient marketplaces cannot be about luck.
The next generation of the darknet will offer a far better grade of searchable sludge.
4.) Other cryptocurrencies will compete with Bitcoin as the anonymous payment system of choice
According to Jamie Bartlett, “There was a problem with bitcoin, because every bitcoin transaction is actually recorded publicly in a public ledger. So if you’re clever, you can try and work out who’s behind them. So they came up with a tumbling service. Hundreds of people send their bitcoin into one address, they’re tumbled and jumbled up, and then the right amount is sent on to the right recipients, but they’re different bitcoins, creating a micro-laundering system.”
As of this writing, there are over 3,200 cryptocurrencies of which 26 have a market cap over $1 million USD.
After Bitcoin, the top 10 cryptocurrencies include Ripple, Litecoin, Ethereum, Dash, Dogecoin, Banxshares, Stellar, BitShares, Bytecoin, and Nxt.
5.) Darknet customer base will grow exponentially
As shown above, the number of articles written, TV shows and documentaries produced, and headline-making court cases about the darknet has dramatically increased consumer interest.
People are naturally curious, but in the past have shied away because of rumors that anyone using the Tor browser would put them on some FBI watch list. Now, with plenty of Tor alternatives and reports of “normal people” exploring the darknet just for fun, far more Internet users are feeling it’s safe to dip their toes in the dark waters.
6.) The darknet marketplace will expand exponentially to meet customer demand
When U.S. government officials shut down Silk Road, the FBI seized 144,000 bitcoins, worth about $28.5 million. This one site alone was doing over $600 million per year in transactions.
It’s not easy to get reliable stats on the darknet economy, but when a $600 million site goes down, entrepreneurs see this as a ton of existing consumers looking for an alternative marketplace.
While this probably falls into the “I’m-smarter-than-the-other-guy” theory of counterintuitive entrepreneurship, every public failure of darknet markets will inspire hundreds if not thousands of freethinking opportunists.
Public court documents are nothing short of a how-to-manual for entering the darknet business arena.
Internet security firm, Trend Micro, foresees “the rise of new, completely decentralized marketplaces” that rely on Bitcoin’s blockchain technology. They predict this technology will be used “to implement full-blown marketplaces without a single point of failure”, guaranteeing trust and safe transactions.
7.) Private delivery services will crop up to insure untraceable, secure, and anonymous delivery
Think in terms of a silent and anonymous flying-driving drone that appears invisible to street-cams, radar, and infrared scanners and logs no record of its pickup and delivery points.
This is a machine that no one controls, other than to insure it’s operational, perform routine maintenance, and collect the money in the form of Bitcoin that is paid for every time it’s used.
In a few years, I can imagine a small fleet of these vehicles in every major city, never parking in the same place, with mobile maintenance units meeting vehicles in random locations to perform standard upkeep.
8.) A uniquely-crafted avatar will soon emerge as the first celebrity face and voice of the darknet
Having a celebrity avatar as the “face of the darknet” is a natural evolution of the darknet going mainstream.
While Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning have become some of the more visible personalities for whistleblower activity, there are many more who are passionate about righting the world’s wrongs that are wishing to stay far more anonymous.
The first celebrity avatar will likely be a college team testing the limits of their darknet prowess, but will evolve quickly under the media spotlight.
9.) The darknet will invent its own justice system
When something goes wrong on the darknet, there are no police, court systems, judges, or lawyers to talk to. For this reason, a number of darknet “fixer” sites will spring up to manage the failures in a way that can only be described as darknet justice.
Second Life and many other virtual world sites lost tons of prospective users because they weren’t able to resolve consumer conflicts.
While darknet justice may not be a “systems approach” to resolving conflict, it could evolve into a more procedural system that everyone buys into.
Much like our right to bear arms, the same freedom that gives us the right to own guns and protect ourselves, puts guns into the hands of evil-doers and some of these guns can be used against us.
Yes, there’s a downside to every new technology.
The same darknet that can be used by whistleblowers, political dissidents, and freedom of speech advocates can also be used for nefarious activities by trolls, anarchists, perverts, and drug dealers.
In 1990 the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children estimated that only 7,000 images of child pornography were in circulation, making it a low priority issue. However, by 2009 with the aid of a high speed Internet, the U.S. Justice Department recorded 20 million unique computer IP addresses actively sharing child pornography files.
At the same time, political activists are mapping out ways to use the darknet and Bitcoin to topple corrupt governments.
When it comes to the darknet, does the good outweigh the bad? Is this a debate that will ever go away?
I’d love to hear about your experience on the darknet. Are you a proficient user or new at it, and what has been your experience?
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything