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Despite the best efforts of the search engines, the majority of the Internet is unsearchable with estimates of this “Unlit” Web as high as 90%. As ConvergEx’s Nick Colas notes, some of this content (no one knows how much) is dark for a reason – hosting every form of criminal behavior known to man – but the rest from the increasing interest in anonymous Internet use in light of widely publicized government surveillance.
Among the least well understood emerging themes in technology, Colas points out, is the “Dark Web”, adding that Oscar Wilde famously opined that “All human beings have three lives: public, private and secret.” The existing structure of the Internet handles the first two very well. The Dark Web is, apparently, for the third. The first innovation to move from “Dark” to “Lit” Web is bitcoin, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Via ConvergEx’s Nick Colas,
If you are a fan of the movie The Princess Bride, you might recall the character of Dread Pirate Roberts. His was as inherited position, with one man handing down the job to a worthy apprentice when he grew tired of the pirating game. This approach allowed a series of people to benefit from the efforts of many predecessors rather than having to build up their own “Brand” on the high seas.
I am sorry to report that the name Dread Pirate Roberts is now not just a memory from a delightful book and movie, but the nom du guerre of a man accused of running a real life drug website and attempting to arrange several contract killings. His real name is Ross Ulbricht, and these are the particulars of his case:
According to Federal prosecutors, the FBI arrested Ulbricht at the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco Public Library on October 1st. They confiscated his laptop computer, where they noted he was logged into a website call Silk Road as an administrator. This was a popular site for the sale and distribution of illegal drugs and other contraband. The FBI had successfully tracked the operation of the site to Ulbricht, according to court documents related to the case.
In documents found on the seized computer, investigators found a journal, which they claim chronicles Ulbricht’s own development of the site back to its founding in 2010. This included the odd fact that he had grown several kilos of hallucinogenic mushrooms so the site would have something to sell when it went live but before other sellers began to offer their own illegal drugs.
As if running an online portal for illicit drugs wasn’t bad enough, Ulbricht also allegedly tried to arrange six murders-for-hire. The reported targets, all of who are still apparently alive, ranged from blackmailers to fraudulent sellers on the site. These presumably eroded Silk Road’s reputation and user trust.
As of this writing, Ulbricht is being held without bail. The Federal government confiscated 144,000 bitcoins as part of the investigation, worth $122 million as of today. Several press accounts of the case theorize that this stash was only part of Ulbricht’s total holdings and that, if true, would give him access to hundreds of millions of dollars in notional wealth with which to flee the country.
The bitcoin piece of this story got some press, given all the recent interest in the online “Currency”; what got lost in the wash was the presence of the “Dark Web” – a parallel, if much larger Internet, to the one we all use every day. A brief description here:
Google, Yahoo and Bing, among other search engines, only track part of the Internet – essentially the bits that website owners want the public to see. Business owners strive to optimize their sites to appear on pages 1 or 2 of a given search, knowing that most users will not travel farther. Time magazine recently ran a cover article on the “Deep Web”, essentially the Internet which search engines do not reach, and estimated that +90% of online content cannot be found by the typical search engines we all use every day. Wired magazine puts the number at 99%. Either way, most of the Internet is essentially “Dark”.
A large chunk of this “Missing” data must come from its formatting, unfriendly to Google/Yahoo/Bing search algorithms. Just consider all the economic data available through the Federal Reserve’s datasets. Typing “FRED inflation” into Google does get you to the St. Louis Fed’s excellent database of economic indicators, but from there you have to enter exactly what you want. Google, among others, is busy trying to integrate this information; there is a link after the text to a paper describing this effort. Another example of the Dark Web: your financial information at your bank or broker, held behind security firewalls but available to you with an ID and password.
Then there is the part of the Internet that doesn’t want to be found, and where the “Dark Web” means something else. Silk Road is one example, and even though that site is now shuttered there are other places on the Dark Web where users can purchase illegal drugs. From there, it gets a lot worse. There are sites advertising contract killings, illegal pornography, money laundering, and stolen financial information. Some press reports link global terrorism to the Dark Web.
Now, you won’t find the Dark Web on your Explorer, Safari or Firefox browser. To find these sites you’ll need something called Tor, short for “The Onion Router”, or other software which essentially makes you anonymous online. These browsers route your heavily encrypted traffic through a rabbit warren of servers around the world, making it nearly impossible to connect your computer to any individual site you might visit. Tor was actually developed by the U.S. Navy for secure communication, but the software is available for free here: https://www.torproject.org
Secure and anonymous access to the Internet is becoming a growth business, and Tor is one of the hottest tickets to that show. The Google search phrase “Tor search” has tripled in the last year, and the query “Tor” is up 100% over the same period. Like most fashion-forward tech trends, searches for Tor cluster on the coasts, in Oregon, Washington state, California and New York. Since search engine capability doesn’t reach the Dark Web – by design, of course – TorSearch is now available for users, with a reported 130,000 sites listed and something like a tripling of use in the last few weeks, according to media accounts.
There is an obvious tension between a growth opportunity for business and the need for society to regulate and control the illegal use of any technology. A few points here:
Aside from search engine companies, there is not much academic research dedicated to the Dark Web. We spent the better part of day trolling the usual scholarly sites, with little success.
Law enforcement seems poorly equipped to handle the challenge. There was one high profile takedown of a server hosting a range of illegal activities in Ireland over the summer (link below), but its success seems to have been caused by a flaw in the Firefox browser software used by Tor. The flaw has since been fixed. It wasn’t a technical gltich that brought down Silk Road – one of the supposed hitmen contracted for the murder-for-hire plot was an undercover agent.
We did find one consumer product offering related to Tor – something called pogoplug – which directs your web traffic into the anonymous network. It cost $49 and has wifi for your cell phone. The downside: Tor is slower than conventional access since your information transits through more connections than the customary point-to-point process.
All that said, we do have one innovation – bitcoin – that successfully made the transition from Dark to “Lit” web. Silk Road was clearly an early enabler of the online “Currency” but it now has the tacit recognition of everyone from the Federal Reserve to business television. Like the Dark Web, its early appeal was anonymity, but its low cost utility for money transfer should allow it to survive increasing regulatory scrutiny. It won’t be a flawless transition, considering its birth in the primordial ooze of the Dark Web, but it seems well on its way.
Can there be other innovations, developed in the shadows of the Dark Web, which hit the mainstream? It seems inevitable. Revelations of government spying around the world provide the notional demand for anonymous Internet use. Oscar Wilde famously opined that “All human beings have three lives: public, private and secret.” The existing structure of the Internet handles the first two very well. The Dark Web is, apparently, for the third.
Urgent: The public comment period on actions to protect bees from neonicotinoids in Canada closes today!
Professor Dave Goulson is a UK biologist who specializes in bees. He has published over 200 scientific articles on the ecology of bees and other insects, and is the author of Bumblebees: Their behaviour, ecology and conservation (2010, Oxford University Press) and A Sting in the Tale (2013, Jonathan Cape), a popular science book about bumblebees.
In 2010 he was BBSRC “Social Innovator of the Year” and in 2013 he won the Marsh Award for Conservation Biology from the Zoological Society of London. In 2006 he founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a charity devoted to reversing bumblebee declines.
We spoke to Goulson recently to get the scoop on all this buzz about neonicotinoids.
A\J: George Monbiot, who quotes your work in his blog, says that the EU ban is not comprehensive or meaningful – that only a few kinds of neonicotinoids will be banned and that the class of pesticides as a whole will continue to be used widely.
DG: It’s not a complete ban at all. It’s only two years, so it’s temporary, it applies only to seed dressing on flowering crops, so canola, corn, sunflowers, and only the drilling of seed-treated crops in the spring and summer when bees are flying because of the dust that’s created that leads to fairly swift death for bees. It does not apply to foliar sprays on fruit and vegetables, garden use, or to seed dressings on winter wheat, which is a big crop in Europe that is drilled in the autumn. But lots of them will still be used and, given their persistence in soil, there will be lots swilling around. And even if there were a total ban for two years, because of their persistence I wouldn’t expect bee populations to be bouncing back as a result. It would take many years for these compounds to be removed from the soil.
A\J: My research on this issue indicates that bees are only one factor – that many other invertebrates and birds are threatened by these chemicals. Is part of the problem that services provided by bees can be fairly easily quantified in economic terms? Is this focus on bees at the expense of the bigger picture?
DG: I would agree completely. One of the reasons you highlight is that bees get all the attention because everyone understands that they are important, but fewer people understand the importance of worms, earwigs, etc. The second thing is that beekeepers notice when their bees die. But wild organisms have no one to look after them and no one to notice if they are having problems. The first people to notice the effects of neonicotinoids were French beekeepers back in the 1990s. But there are lots of insects in the environment that we don’t want to be killed that are also being exposed. This can be through build up in soil and water, and the pesticides can be drawn up by non-crop roots. There is every reason to suspect that the effects are much, much broader than just bees, be we have no good monitoring programs for these other organisms.
A\J: Do we have a handle on how effective neonics are at increasing crop yields? Can it be quantified?
DG: This is the most interesting thing of all. There is no doubt we need farming; we need to produce sufficient food efficiently. If these pesticides were vital to farming we might just have to accept bee kills. The irony is that there is no evidence that they are effective. Pest management in farming is not based on evidence; it’s not based on field trials. Recently there have been a few studies from the US on soybeans that found no effect on yields whatsoever. Farmers are paying good money for seed treatments that don’t benefit them in any way. There is a fundamental problem with the system, in my view, which is that most agronomic advice to farmers comes from people who work for agrichemical companies. So it’s hardly surprising that they are recommending farmers use lots of agrichemicals. And it seems as if some of the ones they are recommending aren’t doing anything. It might sound a bit crazy, but look at it this way – we all buy things that we don’t need all the time: cosmetics that don’t do anything, vitamin supplements that don’t do anything, and so on. We are all easily convinced to buy things we don’t need and farmers have no other source of information. They can’t choose not to use these chemicals anyway, because it’s impossible to get untreated seed at present, so they don’t even have a choice. They are forced to pay for something that doesn’t work, which I think is pretty outrageous and I think if farmers knew that, they might well be quite unhappy.
A\J: Are you saying that after getting their education, most agronomists end up working for agrichemical companies?
DG: I’m not an expert on the Canadian system, but I can tell you that in the UK, 80 per cent of agronomists work directly for agrichemical companies and I believe the situation is similar here.
A\J: If corn, soy and canola farmers are prevented from using neonics, what alternatives will they have? Will these be more harmful?
DG: The first response to this is whether they need an alternative at all. If these chemicals aren’t benefiting their yield, then clearly they don’t need to be replaced with anything. IF one makes the assumption that for someone, somewhere, neonics are providing some small benefit, although there’s no evidence for this, then farmers might want to use something else. They won’t go back to using organophosphates as they have been banned. It’s more likely that farmers might increase their use of pyrethroids slightly, which are being used currently anyway – most seeds treated with neonics are also sprayed with pyrethroids. So that’s the worst-case scenario. Now, pyrethroids do kill bees, they are an insecticide, but they do have a big advantage from a bee’s perspective in that they don’t persist in the environment for longer than a few days. So beekeepers can shut their hives or take them away for a few days, while neonics are in the environment 365 days a year.
A\J: One of our bloggers has suggested that it’s time to rethink they way we practice agriculture – that enormous monocultures are extremely hard on soil, water, wildlife and humans. Are you able to comment on that?
DG: I would say that modern agriculture is probably not sustainable in the long term globally. We are losing absurd amounts of soil from repeatedly plowing in parts of the world where winds or heavy rains can wash it away. We are using up underground aquifers in some of the more arid parts of the world; we have problems of salinization in some parts of the world. We are reducing the ability of the planet to produce food globally. We do need to rethink the ways we are producing food.
A\J: John Bennett of Sierra Club Canada has noted that western Canada hasn’t seen the same die off as we in eastern and central Canada have. He wonders if it might be the difference between corn and canola production. Do you have any insight on that?
DG: I don’t know the details on that, but I’ve heard the same arguments. Application of neonics on canola is much lower than on corn. But the problems for bees are not just pesticides. Bees have been suffering for many decades because there aren’t many flowers left. Modern farming doesn’t leave room for anything but the crop. This applies more to wild bees than to honeybees, but they’ve all undergone a 70-year decline due to lack of food. On top of that we’ve accidentally introduced disease and parasites, and now we’re poisoning them. It’s this combination of stressors that’s at the heart of the problem. Bees could cope with one of them, or maybe two, but if you throw three or more factors at them they get into trouble. So maybe there are fewer stressors in the west or they exist in different combination. It may also come down to the application rate of the pesticides. I have heard that this may be exaggerated, that western bees are not as healthy as they are made out to be, but I don’t have any figures on that.
A\J: Do you have a take away message for us?
DG: I’m always really keen to get people to not just talk about honeybees. Pollination is done by a whole load of different insects and they are all really important and all need looking after. Bees have their champions, but all organisms need to be protected.
You’ve got just enough time left to tell Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency Publications Section what you think about a potential ban – comments are due today! Get the details here.