Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Deep Web

"Unintended consequences."

That phrase has been bouncing around quite a bit in my classroom discussions.  Mostly it has been in reference to results of humanity's messing around with the environment for our own needs.  It does, of course, have far broader applications.  Nowhere else does the phrase "unintended consequences" fit more than with "the Deep Web."

Have you heard of it?  Until Time magazine ran a recent cover story on it, I certainly had not.  It goes something like this: Ten years ago, our government...specifically our military...built an entirely anonymous and hidden network within the Internet.  The intent was to allow intelligence agencies to clandestinely gather information, for law enforcement to secretly track criminals, and even for political dissidents in areas such as communist China to operate online in total privacy.  Now, this "dark underworld" of sorts has become an online venue for the sale of drugs, child pornography, and even the hiring of assassins.  All without being traced.

According to the article, the idea began with something called The Onion Router, a system named such due to "the layers of encryption that surround and obscure data as its passed back and forth."  The system was released to the Internet as an open-source project that is now simply referred to as "Tor."  (paraphrased from the article)  By running Tor, one can access the Internet with total anonymity.  Even your location is hidden.  You are then free to purchase the illegal good or service of your choice.  Payment is handled through Bitcoin, decentralized digital currency that is virtually untraceable.

What do I think?  Well, I'm amazed.  It pains me to say this as a geek, but my actual nuts-and-bolts knowledge of computers is quite limited.  I know how to "drive" multiple forms of computer technology just fine and can even fix a few things when they break down, but as far as actual source coding and programming goes?  Forget it.  Could never do it.  My lack of programming ability prevents me from fully understanding (but not keeping me from enjoying) the characters of something like Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and many of Rudy Rucker's books.  Those are true cypherpunks through and through.  I suppose I'm rather like William Gibson in this regard (not in quality of writing by any stretch of the imagination.)  I see computers and computer systems as ideas in and of themselves.  That is perhaps why I enjoy reading characters of his such as Cayce Pollard navigate such computer-driven environments. 

That is what fascinates me about the Deep Web.  This is exactly the kind of environment I always envisioned Gibson's hacker cowboys and netrunners inhabiting.  And it's here.  Unintended consequence or not, William Gibson saw it coming.  All we're waiting for now is the ability for direct brain-to-computer connection.

We probably don't have long to wait for that, either.

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