by Hala Mounib

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The digital revolution began in 1947, shortly after Bell Laboratories’ scientists invented transistors and managed to combine them together into integrated circuits (Douglas E. Comer, 2019). The world’s transition from an analogue era to a digital one marked the commencement of a rapid transformation that continues to take place to this day.

The conception of the Internet took place in the 1960s with the introduction of Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and eventually ARPANET after the heavy investment and federal funding that went into the U.S. Defense Department’s research project. Enabled by TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) and the Integrated Services Digital Network, technologies like optical fiber and satellite systems became prominent in the 1990s (Barney Warf, 2018).

Tim Berners-Lee, also dubbed the father of the World Wide Web, played an important role in the privatization and commercialization of the Internet. A then-research contractor at CERN in Geneva, he co-authored the first versions of Hypertext Transfer Protocol, Hypertext Markup Language, and Uniform Resource Locators at the CERN nuclear laboratory. He designed them to provide a way for physicists to log and document their conceptual associations within and across their research papers, making his project the closest thing to the Internet that we use today (Fawn T. Ngo, 2018).

There exists, however, a “darker” side to the Internet; a cyberspace that fosters pedophiles, cyberterrorists, illicit contraband distributers, and black-hat hackers. Referred to as the Darknet (with other variations including the Dark Web and the Hidden Internet), hosted websites can be only accessed through special browsers as they are not indexed by standard search engines like Bing or Google. Such examples include The Onion Router (TOR), the Invisible Internet Project (I2P), and Freenet (Monica J. Barratt, Judith Aldridge, and Alexia Maddox, 2018; H. S. Kassab and J. D. Rosen, 2019).

Being encrypted and intentionally hidden, these services offer levels of anonymity and privacy not achievable through regular and conventional browsers. Darknet websites exist in an “electronic vacuum” as they are unindexed and not retrievable from their own databases, making them difficult to locate in comparison with websites hosted with standard search engines (H. S. Kassab and J. D. Rosen, 2019).

The Onion Router, which is named as such due to the multiple layers of encryption that it provides, was initially a project created by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory as a tool for anonymous communication to protect governments from surveillance (Monica J. Barratt, Judith Aldridge, and Alexia Maddox, 2018). It was eventually released for public use.

The reason behind this was to sustain the U.S. government’s anonymity; if the U.S. government is the only body operating on TOR, then naturally any traffic intercepted from TOR exit nodes will be ascribed to governmental use, compromising said anonymity. Whereas if it was released for other people to utilize the network, it wouldn’t be easy to determine the government operative from the ordinary citizen, effectively maintaining the privacy that is sought. In short, the U.S. government sacrificed some power to maintain their power.

While some use it for good, a significant amount of traffic on the darknet is generated by users who want to obscure illegal behaviour. Currently, the darknet serves as a safe haven for anti-censorship political activists, whistleblowers, terrorists, merchants offering illicit goods and services, child pornography traders, and anyone seeking privacy from governmental surveillance (Kristin Finklea, 2017; Monica J. Barratt, Judith Aldridge, and Alexia Maddox, 2018).

There is a lack of funding in the field of hybrid warfare and this contributes to the lack of research and literature. There exist a few systems that detect online terrorist networks, however, they still face ethical limitations due to the problem of privacy and online surveillance. Technologies like semantic knowledge-discovery that rely on machine learning and crawling through both offline text corpus archives and online social media accounts prove to be a violation of the principles of online privacy and may require a permit from law enforcement agencies in order to be run (Andrea Ciapetti, Guilia Ruggierom and Daniele Toti, 2019)

The current debates around the darknet are very complex. On one hand, policing the darknet takes away the safety that whistleblowers, anarcho-capitalists, and those living under tyrannical regimes have, but on the other hand, the facilitation and proliferation of crime will continue to take place if no regulations are set in place.

Instead of focusing only on formulating policies, Pelton and Singh (2019) suggest better standards and training for cybersecurity, utilization of biometrics, and the use of space data-havens such as cubesats to better verify users and limit the menace of terrorist presence online. Others like Kassab and Rosen (2019) argue that little can be done because of the rapid evolution and advancement of such networks.

Overall, most governments are still utilizing outdated methods of criminal detection while underfunding and even disregarding research into areas that have been proven to be compromised and exploited. This has resulted in the intel gathered and analysed to be inaccurate, incomplete, and asymmetrical to the actual situation at hand. This carries grave consequences as many high-risk criminal groups, like terrorist entities, require proactive measures to be taken before they carry out their operations. The lack of literature is therefore understandable because of the sensitivity of the topics and the underfunding of research that goes into the fields of hybrid warfare and cyberterrorism.


Featured Image Credit: Ntrepid Corp. 2018

Hala Mounib is a Policy Research Fellow at the American Freedom Institute

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