December 20, 2013

BACKGROUND: Darknet: Lawless realm hums beneath World Wide Web

Ty McCormick

Beyond the prying eyes of Google and Bing exists a vast cyberfrontier — by some estimates hundreds of times larger than the World Wide Web. This so-called “deepweb” is often more humdrum than sinister, littered with banal data and derelict URLs, but it is also home to an anything-goes commercial underworld, called the “darknet,” that will make your stomach turn.

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It’s a place where drugs and weapons are openly traded, where terrorists link up, and where assassins bid on contract killings. In recent years, the darknet has found itself in government cross-hairs, with the FBI and National Security Agency cracking down on drug merchants and pornographers. Despite a series of high-profile busts, however, this lawless realm continues to hum along, deep beneath the everyday web.

• Oct. 29, 1969: Charley Kline, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, types out the first message between computers connected by ARPANET, the Internet progenitor developed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (Only the first two letters of the electronic dispatch, “LOGIN,” make it all the way to computers at Stanford University.) Within just a few years, a number of isolated, secretive networks begin to appear alongside ARPANET. Some eventually become known as “darknets.”

• 1980s: With the birth of the modern web, arguably marked by the 1982 standardization of the Internet protocol suite, the problem of storing sensitive or illegal data looms large. Early solutions involve physical “data havens” — the informational analogues of tax havens — in the Caribbean that promise to host everything from gambling operations to illegal pornography.

• Late 1990s: As the Internet goes mainstream, falling storage costs coupled with advances in file compression set off an explosion of darknet activity, as users begin to share copyrighted materials. Soon, the Internet’s peer-to-peer data transmission gives birth to decentralized data hubs, some of which, like so-called topsites — where most illegal music and movie files originate — are password-protected and known only to insiders. Others, like Napster, operate in the open and facilitate millions of file transfers per day.

• March 2000: Software developer Ian Clarke releases Freenet, revolutionary software that offers anonymous passage into the darkest reaches of the web, where one can access everything from child pornography to instructions on how to build explosives. “Freenet is a near-perfect anarchy,” Clarke tells The New York Times. “I have two words for ... companies (trying to halt free file-sharing): Give up.”

• June 2000: Libertarian cyberpunks Ryan Lackey and Sean Hastings go into business on Sealand, a bizarre, nominally independent state located on a World War II-era sea fort off the British coast. The start-up, called HavenCo, envisions hosting restricted data (except spam, child porn and money-laundering activities) on high-tech nitrogen-encased servers hidden in the fort’s legs. Despite generating considerable attention, HavenCo begins to bleed money almost immediately, and by 2002, Lackey and Hastings have jumped ship.

• Sept. 20, 2002: Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory release an early version of Tor (“The Onion Router”), which conceals the location and IP address of users who download the software. Originally designed to protect the identity of American operatives and dissidents in repressive countries such as China, Tor also has another natural constituency: denizens of the darknet.

• Jan. 2005: Wired magazine estimates that the “media darknet distributes more than half a million movies every day.” Propelled by booming bandwidth, the underground network explodes into wholesale copyright infringement, from Hollywood blockbusters to Microsoft Office. A study by IT research firm IDC estimates software piracy alone costs businesses $34 billion worldwide in 2005.

• Jan. 3, 2009: A man calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto “mines” the first Bitcoin, a form of untraceable cryptocurrency. Unlike previous digital currencies that failed because there was nothing to prevent users from literally copying their money, Bitcoin makes use of an innovative public accounting ledger that prevents double spending. Unsurprisingly, the cryptocurrency is an instant hit in the darknet, its anonymity making it a perfect tool for money laundering and criminal activity.

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