Last night I watched BBC’s Horizon programme reviewing the history and impact of what’s become known as the Dark Web. Here seems to be the scenario.
In the beginning, was the Internet. In the early days of the Web I wrote a strategic report for my company which triggered the adoption of web technology and internet email. One of the things I pointed out was that, in the precursors such as newsgroups, no-one was anonymous. Traffic has identifiers or, at least, IP addresses attached to it. People know who you are, and your company’s reputation hinges on your behaviour online. As the Internet of Things expands, the amount of information about individuals that can be analysed out of internet traffic expands exponentially with it.
Governments, particularly the US, recognised the potential for compromising security and the response was TOR (The Onion Router network) which passed traffic through a number of nodes to disguise its origin. The project moved to Open Source and has become widely used in response to the growing levels of surveillance of internet traffic, revealed most notably of course by Edward Snowden. Wikileaks uses TOR to facilitate anonymous contributions: it wasn’t tracking which identified Snowden, or Manning. It has been used extensively in recent events in the Middle East.
So at this point, governments are trying to put the genie back in the bottle: they invented TOR, but they don’t like it being used to hide information from them. Moreover, it is being used for criminal transactions on a substantial scale: and at this point Bitcoin becomes part of the picture, because (unlike conventionally banked money) it too is not inherently traceable.
There’s no firm conclusion drawn in the programme, and surely that’s right. Technology of this kind isn’t inherently good or bad: it is, in the strict sense of the word, amoral. But the uses people make of it, as with almost any technology, are not amoral. And the programme raises strong issues about the balance of privacy and security, both in their widest senses. The sources used are strong and reputable: Oxford University’s Internet Institute; Julia Angwin, an established technology researcher and writer, key individuals in the development of these technologies, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, and not least Tim Berners-Lee who admits to having been perhaps naive in his early assessment of these issues.
While it’s still on iPlayer, it’s worth a watch.