When people think of the dark web they imagine that it hosts sites that sell illicit goods such as guns, drugs and fake ID documents. For several years, law enforcement agencies have been trying to close down lucrative dark web sites such as the Silk Road.
The dark web is essentially a collection of websites that are completely hidden except to those who know where to look and they need specialist software to access them, including the highly encrypted browser called Tor.
However, what is perhaps most surprising is that the US government has been financing the principle route into the dark web. In 2013, Tor published its tax returns indicating it had been in receipt of $1.8m and in 2015, they were in receipt of $1.2m. In addition, the Department of Defense is also financing a project to find vulnerabilities in the software.
So the question is why exactly has the US government been financing the very thing law enforcement agencies are seeking to investigate?
It should perhaps come as no surprise that the US military originally deployed this technology as a means for intelligence agencies to interrogate websites and domains in foreign countries without being able to be detected and therefore prevent their owe traffic being analysed. In addition, it was also utilised for communicating with field agents in those countries.
However, there were deficiencies in this approach, which meant that the intelligence agencies needed to expand their usage so that they could be incommunicado inside the dark web. It was for that reason that this technology was opened up to the general public and those wishing to have total anonymity on the web quickly began using the dark web. What they failed to appreciate is that in the process they were aiding the very people, namely the intelligence agencies they despise, from being detected themselves.
Whilst there is undoubtedly nefarious activity being undertaken on the dark web, it is acknowledged that around 2/3rds of sites are conducting what might be termed legitimate business. The reality is that law enforcement agencies are largely unable to control what goes on inside the dark web and in any case the term dark web is something of a misnomer given the aforementioned percentage of legitimate sites present there.
It is very difficult to estimate the true value of the dark web, given much of it is hidden and Bitcoin, which is the currency of choice, is also untraceable. However, there are estimates that currently it is worth around $1-2bn, which, if correct, shows it is still very much in its infancy.
Whilst there is no doubt that there are sites and activities which need to be shut down, there are also questions which need to be answered as to what precisely the US government is doing in terms of the technology which underpins the dark web and inside the dark web itself. In addition, questions will continue to be asked about the origins of Bitcoin itself.
What is clear is that the dark web is unregulated, as is bitcoin, so it will take a considerable amount of effort and financing to be able to monitor the dark web. The fact that they already are is something that perhaps will surprise many people.