The Cyber Spider Web: HKU Dark Web and Silk Road conference

April 19, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

Once in a while, I encounter situations that puzzle me. I expect something, because, say, the blurb of a book didn’t describe the plot very accurately, and I end up quite puzzled when reading. Sometimes, it’s negative – the book is actually terrible. But sometimes, I expect something ridiculously flawed – and the whole thing turns out great.

When I read the abstract for the Center for Law and Technology’s conference “Dark Web and Silk Road”, here’s what happened : I started thinking the event would be one of those dull, sad talks in which someone who just discovered the existence of the deep web gazes at the audience, a look of seriousness in his eyes, would lecture us poor and innocent young people about the dangers of internet. I duly apologize to the speaker, Dr. Chow. I was wrong.

What happened was quite the opposite. Dr. Chow, who works as the associate Director of the Center for Information Security and Cryptography at HKU, actually gave an interesting talk, explaining both the way the deep web worked, and the practical issues investigators face when trying to trace criminals through the dark web.

The internet is often described as an iceberg : the part you see is called the “surface”. It is everything you can access through a regular medium, like the browser Google. But those browsers can’t reference everything that is online, either because some contents are protected. Examples include library catalogs, or magazine articles that require you to subscribe, or because, well… there’s lots of stuff online, and things that are never clicked are likely to not be referenced (like your middle school blog).

“The surface web is often said to represent 4% of the whole internet. ” said Dr. Chow. But as he continued, Dr. Chow made a statement about the limitations of reality. “It’s actually hard to know precisely the numbers.” he said

Besides the surface web, and the deep web (which is under access control), there is another part of the web : at the bottom of the iceberg, the dark web. It is made of encrypted content : not only is its access controlled, but the control process is pretty well done. To find your way to it, you’ll need something to encrypt your messages and decrypt the messages you want to access.

TOR stands for “the onion router”, because the domain of the dark web pages is “.onion” (the name comes from the several layers of the onion : the more you peel, the more layers you find, just like trying to trace down a signal through TOR). But generally, what TOR does is make tracing more difficult by making your message go through several routers around the world, so that your IP address is hidden. So TOR hides your IP address, encrypts the message you send (making it difficult to know what internet page you’re on) and makes traffic analysis much harder as well. In other words, it’s difficult to know how many people visit a precise page.

Which, of course, helps if you want to set up an online, illegal activity.

Dr. Chow also gave a very detailed and enlightening account of the difficulties met by experts when trying to trace down illegal activities on the dark web. In a nutshell, the technical protections are so hard to get around that working under cover remains the most viable way to take down an illegal network online.

As the talk was very short, only one hour, Dr. Chow could not mention all of the fascinating things about the deep – or the dark – web, that make them an important part of the education internet users should receive about the web. Of course, there’s the well-known fun fact, that no government knows how to stop the traffic, which makes TOR a breach through the Chinese Great Firewall.

Although the dark web is used for illegal activities, it also hosts a community of users who believe in anonymity online, and genuinely don’t want to be traced. Some of them because they are political activists, some of them because they are weirdos, but some, because they know data is monetized and easy tracing can have unexpected side effects. Look at the use of Big Data, for instance for political framing today.

So, yes, this talk was actually great – and you might want to read more about all of this online world you didn’t know about. Why ? Because an informed user is worth two. And see you on TorChan ! (that’s a joke – don’t go there. It’s… dark).


4th-year History student. A big fan of Brandy and Monica.