Saturday, July 15, 2017

Review of "The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld" by Jamie Bartlett

If you want to read a book that reveals all the hidden, mysterious secrets of the 'Dark Net', this isn't it. Jamie Bartlett does talk about the 'underground network' - and provides details about the the 'Silk Road' website that sells illegal drugs - but most of the sites discussed aren't especially cryptic. Neverthless, the author provides an interesting overview of non-mainstream goings on in the cyberworld. In Bartlett's view, the dark net is a place where "users say and do what they like, often uncensored, unregulated, and outside of society's norms."

Bartlett begins by decribing the evolution of the internet, starting with the Arpanet in the 1960s, a system of linked computers that helped academics communicate with each other. This led to Usenet and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in the late 1970s, which added computer enthusiasts to the mix. Finally, in the 1990s, the World Wide Web made the internet easily accessible to the general public....and there was no stopping it after that.

From the beginning, some Usenet and BBS subscribers used the internet for trolling, which can be described as bizarre, creative, offensive, and illegal behavior (or - as the urban dictionary defines it - 'being a prick on the internet.') Trolling spans a wide gamut of activity, including: bullying, hacking, pornography, threats, and so on. It started when large numbers of computers were linked, and has increased exponentially since then.

Bartlett provides a disturbing example of recent trolling: a naive young teen posted sexually explicit photos on a 'random board' designated /b/ on the image-sharing website 4chan. Goaded by subscribers, the girl posed with a bottle of prescription medication. Some viewers used the information they gleaned to trace the teen's identity and 'dox' her: they found the victim's Facebook and Twitter accounts, and sent the nude photos to all her friends and relatives - essentially devastating her young life. The entire procedure took under an hour.....and then the trolls carelessly moved on.

Some people use the internet to spread progaganda and hate. White power groups use their websites to bash minorities, terrorist organizations use it to attack infidels, and so on. All these ideologues use their forums to attract like-minded supporters.....and perhaps plan nefarious activities.

At the heart of dark net activity is the desire for privacy and security: users want to be able to operate without regulations or interference, especially from the government. Thus technically adept individuals called 'cypherpunks' developed powerful cryptography and other technologies that make internet activity essentially untraceable.

Web secrecy requires software called 'Tor' - which is available for free - that helps users navigate the Dark Net. 'Tor' hides a user's identity and activity by 'onion routing' - a technique that incorporates messages in many layers of encryption: essentially, the message is routed from one relay to another to another (and so on) until it reaches its which time the original sender can't be identified. Bartlett describes onion-routing in some detail, if you're interested. Or you can look it up on Wikipedia.

Online secrecy is also assisted by the use of internet money, called bitcoins, which were developed in 2009. Bitcoin transactions are secure, fast, free, and unidentifiable - making this currency convenient for online drug buys and porn purchases. The book describes bitcoins in detail, if you want to know more. Or again, you can look it up on Wikipedia.

Cypherpunks believe that internet confidentiality guards civil liberties. To these libertarians, the fact that criminals and terrorists also use these 'anonymising' techniques is unfortunate, but 'a cost worth paying for the freedom it provides.' Many law enforcement organizations (naturally) disagree.

One of the more unsavory aspects of the underground net is child pornography, which is widely available with a few clicks of the mouse. Most people who look at child porn purposely seek it out, but others get drawn in - step by step - from legal porn sites. Bartlett relates the story of Michael, who claims: "I moved from viewing photographs and videos of teenagers, to images that...were clearly of tiny increments. I made excuses in my head as to why it was okay. For a while I told myself [that it] wasn't even illegal." Law enforcement officials have shut down many child porn sites, but new ones spring up immediately.....making the child porn industry impossible to annihilate.

As I mentioned before, Bartlett talks about buying drugs on the internet, and - in an informative chapter - explains exactly how he went about obtaining marijuana from an online drug supermarket (it was easy as pie).

In another section, the author addresses 'do-it-yourself' porn stars, who often garner big tips (in bitcoins). The range of performers include young women; middle age couples; threesomes; and more. Bartlett was a guest at one of the 'shows' and became quite friendly with the participants.

Some extroverts use a board called /soc/ on the 4chan website, which is "ground zero for exhibitionism." It's a space for cam-models (people who 'perform' on the internet); special interest meet-up groups; and 'rate-me threads' such as "Rate my dick, please" (which strikes me as hilarious). One fellow's pecker garnered comments like: thick, long - 8/10; very slightly weird color - 5/10; fucking huge - 10/10; and "I'm not even gay and I'd suck it." (Ha ha ha)

One positive aspect of the internet is the plethora of support groups for people who are troubled or having difficulties. Sites dedicated to subjects like anorexia, bulimia, self-cutting, suicide, etc. can illustrate the dangers of these behaviors, help people recover, or advise them to seek help. Unfortunately, some forums - called 'alternative' (alt) sites are 'pro self-harm.' There are websites, for instance, that tout anorexia and bulimia as lifestyle choices, and others that actually encourage cutting and suicide. These forums can do a great deal of harm.

The last thing Bartlett discusses are transhumanists - people who want to live forever. These individuals, who would push technology to the limit, want to upload their brains to a computer server or chip. Then - at some future time - their brain could be inserted into an android or robot, and they would essentially become immortal. At the other end of the spectrum are anarcho-primitivists (like the unabomber, Ted Kaczynski), who want to do away with all technology. These folks dream of returning to a primiitive way of life, similar to that of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. To me, neither of these scenarios seems very likely - or particularly desirable.

During Bartlett's research for this book he interviewed many people who run or use (what many would consider) dubious websites. In almost every case, the individual's real life persona was much more congenial than his/her online presence, including white supremacists and political extremists. It appears that the dark net's anonymity gives these people license to be contentious or outrageous online. Bartlett himself maintains a neutral attitude about controversial websites. As a journalist, he 'just presents the facts'- which (I suppose) is appropriate for his profession.

All in all the book provides a wide, but shallow, overview of non-traditional internet activity. I was hoping to learn about some really weird, underground websites - maybe involving outerspace aliens - but either they don't exist or Bartlett didn't find them. LOL

This is an interesting book that I'd recommend to non-experts who want to know more about the dark net.

Rating:  3 stars


  1. Great start--"If you want to read a book that reveals all the hidden, mysterious secrets of the 'Dark Net', this isn't it." I did want that so read the rest of your review with great interest. Well done, Barb!