Policing The Dark Web is Like Trying to nail down a Cloud

Tonight I made my maiden speech to Bolton Council, discussing the Dark Web and how it is next to impossible to investigate it effectively. I made this speech in response to a motion presented by Councillor Haworth (Labour) asking the Chief Executive to write to the Home Office supporting investigations into the sale of “legal highs” (which the Conservatives are making illegal, by the way) and the Dark Web.

Madam Mayor, Members of the Council,

The increased use of drugs in Bolton is a huge concern for everyone, especially the rapid increase in the use of so-called “legal highs”, many of which can be deadly. As the drug education service FRANK says, “We know that many ‘legal highs’ have been directly linked to poisoning, emergency hospital admissions including in mental health services and, in some cases, deaths.”

Clearly more needs to be done to educate the people of Bolton about the dangers of these drugs, the contents of which are completely unknown to their users. However, we on the Conservative benches have some concerns about the method by which this motion seeks to obtain its laudable goals.

Cllr Haworth is asking for support for an investigation into the Dark Web. This is a label that gets thrown around an awful lot when talking about the purchase of drugs and other criminal activity online but it is a term that is misunderstood. The Dark Web is not some remote corner of the Internet where drug dealers, terrorists and paedophiles lurk; it is something every Internet user accesses on a daily basis.

What we think of as the Internet is better known as the World Wide Web. We think of websites like Google, Facebook or our preferred news website as the Internet while the murky criminal side is the Dark Net, but it’s not that cut-and-dried. If your news website must be paid for before you can read it (like the Times, or the Sun websites) then they are on the Dark Web. If you have a Gmail account, it is on the Dark Web. So are your Dropbox account, your Google Drive and your kids’ saved games if they use cloud saving on their Xbox Live account.

The Dark Web is everything that search engines cannot see. If your Facebook profile is not publicly accessible – and I recommend that it is not otherwise identity thieves will have an easy time with you – then your Facebook profile is on the Dark Web. Your emails are Dark Web because they are password protected, for obvious reasons.

The Web isn’t the only part of the Internet, although it is the most visible. There are many other connection methods aside from HTTP, which is what the Web runs on. There is FTP, used for transferring files between Internet servers and users’ computers. There is GOPHER, although that is mostly defunct these days because of the Web’s prominence. Bulletin boards, which were popular in the years before the Web (and which you have to dial into using a modem or use telnet software to access) still exist.

There are a variety of peer-to-peer connections, such as BitTorrent, which is often used by pirates to share films and music with one-another, and TOR; the most famous method of accessing the murkier side of the Dark Web.

These are all part of the Internet, and the overwhelming majority are Dark Web. So it’s easy to see why at the last estimate from Internet security experts, the Dark Web made up 99.9% of the Internet.

Policing the Dark Web is like trying to nail down a cloud; it’s an exercise in futility. The latest paper from Internet security experts to the Global Commission on Internet Government found that the police and security services do not yet have the ability to effectively monitor the criminal parts of the Dark Web, and recommends “new ways” to fight cybercrime be implemented “as quickly as possible”.

The fact is that the criminal part of the Dark Web takes place via peer-to-peer services like TOR; which anonymises users by routing their data through other, privately-owned servers so nobody can see who is going where and what they are doing. To properly monitor TOR, you need to own a lot of these private servers; which is expensive and even then you can’t guarantee that you’ll get the right data at the right time to see who is doing what.

You also can’t shut down TOR because its users are the servers. It’s peer-to-peer file transferring, which successors to Napster showed were incredibly resilient to outside pressure back at the turn of the millennium. If you turn off one of these peer-to-peer servers, someone will turn on another, and another, and another. We see this happening right now with file sharing sites such as The Pirate Bay.

The Pirate Bay, however, is not on the Dark Web – it is readily searchable by Google and other search engines – but it acts like a Dark Web site in that its servers move around often and copies are maintained around the world to stop it being taken offline permanently.

For criminal Dark Web sites, we need to look at sites like The Silk Road, where drugs and assassinations can be purchased via untraceable electronic currencies such as BitCoin.

For those who aren’t aware, BitCoin is an electronic currency that uses incredible levels of encryption to maintain its security and which can be freely traded on specialist currency exchange sites. As of this afternoon, 1 BitCoin was valued at £154. Naturally, most transactions are in fractions of a BitCoin rather than whole numbers.

While all BitCoin transactions are theoretically recorded, there are no names attached to them and BitCoins are easily laundered via specialist services, which make them virtually untraceable. This means BitCoin is not just valuable but highly desirable for use in criminal enterprises. Furthermore, BitCoin is not on the Dark Web; it’s a legitimate currency with a freely-browsable website.

With all this in mind, writing to the Home Office supporting further investigations into drug purchasing and the Dark Web is a laudable goal but we must be clear that law enforcement lacks the ability to monitor the entire Internet and even if it could, it’s wishful thinking to expect police and GCHQ to be able to monitor, discover and deal with criminal sites using current technology when they are not only hidden amongst billions of megabytes of data flowing daily around the world but also highly mobile.

It’s like asking the police to find a needle in a haystack then realising that the needle moved to another haystack while they are looking for it.

So we will be supporting this motion as its motives are well-meaning and just, albeit with the caveat that simply asking for an investigation into the Dark Web is too large and problematic an undertaking to be successful at this point in time.

Instead, we would suggest that any investigation be focused on the criminal aspects of the Dark Web, such as the Silk Road website and similar criminal sites. We believe this would then produce more significant results without compromising the legitimate day-to-day uses of the Dark Web.

As is evident from my final paragraphs, above, I supported the motion, as did all Conservative Councillors, on the grounds that the prevention of deaths due to drugs is a laudable goal. We supported with the caveat that any attempted investigation of the Dark Web be limited to criminal activity, because to do anything else would be futile and without any real purpose.