When I mention the “dark web”, what are the first things that come to your mind? Drugs, fraud, or even terrorism? The concept of an internet underworld where contraband thrives and criminals run rampant is what we as a society have become accustomed to. Movies, television shows, sensationalized documentaries, all of which have fostered our perception of what the “dark web” is. There are many cybersecurity companies that gear their marketing towards this very perception…offering “dark web monitoring” or some service to help put your mind at ease about how much of your personal identifying data is out there.
The uncomfortable truth is that most self-proclaimed experts on the cybersecurity don’t fully understand the dark web from a fundamental standpoint. For example, most of the preconceived notions we harbor about the dark web are dated to 2013 with the first commercial popular dark net market (known as DNMs) “Silk Road”. The allure of a criminal Amazon attracted the lay person to the potential of buying narcotics from the safety of their home on the dark web. We would be remiss if we didn’t accept the fact most wallets transacting on the Bitcoin blockchain before 2017 were attributed to dark net market purchases. From the antiquated perception of the dark web being some seething underworld, today we see social media platforms like Facebook have a domain on the TOR (The Onion Router) network, and the Central Intelligence Agency has its own TOR domain as well. In fact, the dark web has evolved so much over the past decade that I often feel it doesn’t get enough credit or admiration. It is estimated that for the entirety of the world wide web, today dark nets make up 6% of the content, comparable to (if not larger than) the surface web or “Clearnet”.
To the lay user of the dark web, they are likely using the TOR browser (torproject.org). Unarguably the largest and most successful dark net, it is the “go to” for dark net markets and other criminal avenues. Sites hosted on the TOR network are known as Onion sites or “hidden services” that will always end in a .onion domain. But the TOR browser is not the only dark net that makes up what we know as the “dark web”. TOR has a built in outproxy, meaning users can browse the Clearnet obfuscating their browsing sessions with the TOR network. TOR’s popularity is so widespread that in the summer of 2022, over 3.5 million users were logging in daily.
The second largest darknet, and my personal favorite, I2P (Invisible Internet Project – geti2p.net) has rapidly been gaining popularity over the past two years. For a network that has been live for 21 years, I2P remains what dark web aficionados refer to as the “true dark net” since there is not a built in outproxy. When using I2P, you can only traverse within the network and visit “Eepsites” that end in .i2p domains. The reason for the sudden spike in popularity? The dark net market AlphaBay, which was taken offline by law enforcement in 2017, has resurfaced with their infamous market admin “DeSnake” paeaning that I2P is “safer” than TOR and the resurrected AlphaBay would be hosted on I2P. In 2022, the I2P developers released a new version of I2P, dubbed I2P+, which is the first major improvement on the dark net in years.
In tandem with the advent of cryptocurrency and the blockchain revolution, dark nets like ZeroNet and LokiNet have become the archetypes of what we refer to today as “web3”. The darknet ZeroNet, which is built up the Bitcoin blockchain, hosts “ZeroSites” that are identified by public key (key pair encryption) and utilizes the TOR relay infrastructure to anonymize users traffic. On ZeroNet, you are identified by your “ZeroID”, which is equivalent to your public wallet address (if you understand Bitcoin). On a completely separate blockchain, the cryptocurrency Oxen (oxen.observer) which is maintained by the Oxen Privacy Tech Foundation (optf.ngo) lives the impressive dark net newcomer LokiNet. Sites hosted on LokiNet, which end in .lokidomains, are known as SNapps. What is even more impressive and a testament to the capabilities of blockchain technology, the end-to-end encryption platform “Session” is also built on the Oxen blockchain.
I am an adamite believer that we should be viewing the dark web (as we know it) as a living thing and constantly evolving. Much of our preconceived notions are embarrassingly dated. The dark web is not something that is merely a novelty and utilized by Millennial wash-outs buying drugs in their parents’ basements between video game campaigns. The dark web is not something that should be feared. Everyday, the dark web changes, new sites and services emerge, and it is important for us to understand this evolution. Otherwise, we can keep our dated perceptions from 2013.
- Keven Hendricks