Here is the full transcript of documentary filmmaker Alex Winter’s TEDx Talk: The Dark Net Isn’t What You Think. It’s Actually Key To Our Privacy at TEDxMidAtlantic conference.
So for most of my life I’ve been obsessed with the digital revolution. That may sound strange coming from an actor, director but actually I blame the Bill and Ted movies for my obsession with technology.
You see, one day in the late ‘80s, I woke up with my face on a cereal box. Yeah. When the first Bill and Ted opened, my life became permanently public. Grocery shopping had to be done in the middle of the night. Crowded subway was a no-go zone. And a teenage fan ran away from home, crossed the country by bus, and parked herself at my front door. Thankfully I was out of town.
Now don’t get me wrong. I was very grateful for the success of those movies. But like many young people thrust into the spotlight, I was unprepared for a life that suddenly lacked any degree of privacy and anonymity. And that’s when I discovered the Internet.
Specifically, the anonymous online communities that existed in the crude early days of the net before the existence of the modern web that we know today. Believe it or not here were thousands of people around the world, meeting in online news groups and chat rooms to discuss a wide range of interests and connect with each other. Many of us using anonymous usernames and even encrypted email. There had never been anything like this, and it blew my mind. I may have come to the anonymous internet for privacy but I stayed for the community — a vibrant network where I could say what I wanted and be myself. It was a very liberating experience, whether or not your face was on a cereal box.
So I’ve since spent a lot of time investigating the evolution of online communities: who builds them? What motivates their creation and how these often-radical technologies are changing the world? And that led me to make a documentary called Deep Web.
Now this movie mostly examines the Silk Road which was an anonymous online marketplace and forum that existed in a hidden area of the internet and used Bitcoin, an unregulated digital currency.
Now the Silk Road sold many things, but mostly drugs, including illegal drugs. This is a heated subject and for the most part, the media covered it in a highly salacious manner. The headlines screamed about a shadowy Internet filled with guns and drugs and hitmen. The further I investigated it, the more I realized it was largely inaccurate.
You see what compelled me to spend several years immersed in the area of the Silk Road and the hidden Internet was a desire to discover what if anything they mean to the average citizen. And it turns out they mean a great deal.
So let’s start with the basics: What is this hidden Internet exactly?
Now the media coverage of the Deep Web usually describes it as a vast hidden area, 5000 times larger than the surface web and filled with criminals. But that is actually false. The Deep Web is not a place, is not hidden and actually harbors zero criminal activity. It simply accounts for the unindexed content online, the raw data that Google doesn’t know about and doesn’t care about. For example, your online banking data is not stored anywhere on Google and your company may have an internal network that you use to communicate — this exists in the Deep Web.
But there is a hidden Internet, a tiny little area called the Darknet or “dark web” and this small corner of the Internet is comprised primarily of information that is actively hidden from public view. And this is the area worth talking about.
So the Darknet — it can only be accessed by specific tools like Tor which is a special browser and service that masks your browsing activity and gets you into the darknet. Will you find crime? Yes, but not to the degree that the media has claimed and crime is neither the primary use of the darknet nor why it was built.
Now the internet was originally funded by the Department of Defense and as it became publicly facing with a worldwide web, new technologies were created to ensure its use for defense. So really the darknet is just another tool and it’s used by government agencies all over the world, along with journalists, dissidents in countries with hostile governments, whistleblowers, and just regular folks who want to create and utilize anonymous online communities, like the ones I spent so much time in back in the late ‘80s. And like any place where human beings congregate there is illegal activity, so let’s look at that.
There are black markets selling drugs and many of these — most of these, like the Silk Road, primarily sell marijuana. Altogether they represent a small fraction of the physical drug trade.
Guns? Yes, guns have been sold on the darknet; they’re not effectively. Sadly, why would you want to hassle with the darknet when you can buy a semi-automatic rifle anywhere from Walmart to Instagram?
There is child pornography on the darknet, though significantly less than is available on the surface web. And contrary to popular mythology, there was no tangible evidence that actual legitimate hitmen services have ever been offered on the darknet, or that significant terrorist activity has either. Though there are hope sites that claim these services. It will come as no surprise but hoax and scam sites proliferate on the darknet, operated both by law enforcement to lure the incautious digital criminal and by internet trolls who want to profit on this Deep Web hysteria.
So there are dark things on the darknet, though considerably less than is being reported and law enforcement is all over it. The truth is the darknet is a terrible place to conduct crime. It’s difficult to get into the darknet and it’s cumbersome to navigate once you’re in.
And by nature, digital criminals are amongst the most easily tracked and caught; it’s very hard to remain anonymous on the internet where the slightest mistake can expose your entire history of activity.
Similarly, digital currencies like Bitcoin are horrible tools for crime. While they are capable of being anonymized, by nature they are the least anonymous form of currency that exists, with every single transaction being permanently recorded in a digital ledger and the internet never forgets.
So why the cyber spin and hysteria in the media? Well, it sells; it’s good for clickbait. It makes for, you know, sexy TV shows and movies; it sells magazines.
But there is another agenda at work: to demonize the darknet and to scare people away from it. Now who would want to do that? People in power who believe that the privacy and anonymity that the darknet enables will cause them to lose control. And that’s where the Silk Road comes in, because however you choose to judge it, one of the chief motives for its creation was to fight back against that control.
Now there’s a lot about the Silk Road; we’ll never know because it was built and operated in a hidden area of the internet by anonymous users. But we do know that in 2011, a young physics grad student from Austin, Texas named Ross Ulbricht created this online market. It was a brilliant combination of Tor which hid the site’s location and Bitcoin.
Now Ulbricht claims he created the Silk Road as an economic experiment, a test case to create an online market and forum that would allow its users to congregate with total freedom and anonymity. That is a radical idea. But as a technology service it was a watershed, and the Silk Road immediately attracted thousands of users. It also attracted law enforcement who had infiltrated the Silk Road from the very beginning, and ultimately Ross Ulbricht was arrested, tried and convicted on a handful of charges, including computer hacking, drug trafficking, money laundering, and even a kingpin charge which is usually reserved for massive drug cartels.
There had been initial charges of attempted murder but Ross Ulbricht was never indicted for any of those charges. And there are no murders that are believed to have been carried out. On May 29, 2015, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Now too many on the outside, the story of Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht was about nothing more than an online drug market that was shut down, with its creator severely punished for brazenly flaunting the law. But due to the relatively small amount of drugs being sold, and the fact that Ross Ulbricht was only charged with non-violent offenses, many people were stunned by the extremely harsh sentence it didn’t seem to fit the narrative.
However to those of us who were closer to the events, it fit the narrative fine, it was just a different narrative. You see another side of the story is that Ross Ulbricht found himself at the intersection of three of the most highly prosecuted areas of law in the United States today: cyber, the drug war, and financial regulation. Meaning the Silk Road angered a lot of people in power who feel threatened by the digital revolution in general and the darknet in specific.
Now that was the narrative that I set out to tell in my film, and thankfully due to my connections in this space and my experience with encryption, I was able to gain unprecedented access to the inner workings and architects of the Silk Road. And what I found surprised me. Every key player that I interviewed came from a political background, highly educated activists, significant members of the Occupy movement, radical crypto anarchists, libertarians, et cetera. None of these people were taking this risk by participating in Silk Road simply to sell drugs. Some of them had no interest whatsoever in drugs. They wanted to build the first large-scale anonymous online community. They wanted to circumvent entities that breached their privacy; they wanted to fight back against the drug war. To put it simply, they were taking this risk — enormous risk — for their ideals.
The truth about the Silk Road, as unpalatable as it may be, is that it was a political engine designed to enact change; that is not to exonerate this service, which was reckless and beyond the law, but simply to point out that for many of these people they felt so strongly about these issues that they were willing to risk their freedom to fight for them.
So this is all very interesting. But what does any of it got to do with you? Well, many of you I’m sure have heard of recent hacks, like Ashley Madison, Target, Anthem Blue Cross, and Snapchat and I’m sure privately many of you were glad that they didn’t happen to you.
But here’s another unpalatable truth. We have already been hacked, all of us – our financial information, our medical records, our personal photographs, our browsing activity, our phone calls, our texts. All of this information is already out there in other people’s hands.
How did it get there? Through pervasive government surveillance and bulk collection, by Black Hat hackers who are pulling down your online information and the information of your banks, insurance companies and other institutions and by your internet service provider, your phone company and other tech companies who routinely collect your information both with and without your permission, and whose basic functions track your every move, collect your data and store your speech. I’m not talking about spyware but common apps like Siri and Google Maps.
The hard question in the digital age is not what do we do if our personal information gets out there, because for most of us that’s too late.
The real question we face today is why should we care? As we’re constantly told if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear. Now here’s a personal story, like many of you have experienced. I recently had my credit card information stolen over the Internet, and in this particular case, it turned out to be a couple of teenagers who were using my bank’s money to play a lot of Xbox and order a lot of Pizza.
Now that made me kind of paranoid. So I scanned my laptop and I found another breach in the form of malware. There’s many different types of malware. This is what’s called a keylogger which records all of your keystrokes and your screen activity. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This guy spends a lot of time on the Internet.
But what about my wife’s computer and my children? So I scanned those devices and I found more malware. So in the end, those Xbox and Pizza kids were stopped and our computers were scrubbed of malware, no big deal, just a hassle. But it brought home our vulnerability that our personal information is just sitting out there, waiting to be exploited for whatever reason. And those reasons could range from a minor violation to destroyed lives.
I don’t accept the idea that if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear. Privacy serves a purpose. It’s why we have blinds on our windows and a door on our bathroom. Privacy is important to us. It’s something that we take for granted as being central to our lives. In other words, we have plenty to hide and there’s always been a right to hide it until now, because today there are people who don’t want us to protect our privacy, who want and to a large degree already have free access to our personal information. Again I’m mostly talking about tech and phone companies, government and law enforcement and Black Hat hackers.
Now how do they work to prevent us from our privacy? They propagate misinformation about privacy tools and they demonize those tools and those who use them. They weaken the security of the Internet with backdoors to gain access to our information and they lie to the public about what information they’re collecting and for what purpose. And this behavior has radicalized a generation, a growing movement of hackers, digital activists, and cryptographers who are fighting back, and some of these radical actors created and operated the Silk Road.
Now hearing all this I’m sure that many of you would say I’m willing to give up some of my freedom to have more security. And of course, we want law enforcement to be able to catch the bad guys.
But there’s two problems with this idea that less privacy makes for more security. The first is that there’s no evidence this is the case that government surveillance and backdoors that weaken the security of the Internet make for greater security; it’s a needle in a haystack approach. And it’s highly questionable that it works better than a targeted approach. Law enforcement already has more than enough access for targeting and catching criminals in the digital space. This is in many ways the golden age of surveillance for law enforcement.
The other problem with this idea that less privacy makes for more security is that weakening the security of the Internet makes life easier for the bad guys. It’s easier for hackers to access your information if you’re unable to protect that information, and it’s easier for digital criminals to breach government’s banks and institutions if their general security has been weakened with backdoors. Law enforcement has to be able to do their job in a digital world where citizens have privacy. Just as they have to do their job in a physical world where citizens have privacy. You wouldn’t allow a cop to break into your house and rummage through your belongings. But that’s just what’s happening to your computer and your cell phone – devices that now contain your entire life.
By the same token, corporations need to be able to conduct business and crunch their data with less access. And Black Hat hackers have to be met with airtight security tools, not weakened ones.
But how on earth do we go about achieving all this? It requires the very thing these people are most afraid of: we need to go dark. To go dark means that everyone would be utilizing privacy and anonymity tools at all times tools, like Tor and Virtual Private Networks that protect your browsing activity, just as they protect darknet sites like Silk Road, PGP and encryption services that keep emails private, and fully encrypted phone calls and texts. Now these services used to be difficult for the average user but that’s changing.
The desire for privacy and security in the digital space is becoming big business. You may not realize this but Apple’s iMessages are now encrypted where it used to be that anyone could access your text messages. And now websites are usually using secure connections by default and that’s just the beginning.
It’s now been over 30 years since I first discovered the power and the value of anonymous online communities. But this journey was made urgent by my recent exploration of the darknet. We need a hidden Internet just as we need all the tools and services that protect our privacy and anonymity.
As we move further forward into the technological era and our lives and our world continue to radically change, we have to recognize that both our individual and collective existence depend upon a base level of control over our own privacy. Privacy is not a privilege and it is not something to be willingly and casually sacrificed. Privacy is fundamental to being a human being and it’s worth fighting for.
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