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Shedding light on the darknet

View profile for Casian Sala
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Shedding light on the darknet

The term ‘darknet’ is one which only recently would’ve left most of us baffled, imagining perhaps a fantasy computer game or perhaps a form of blackout curtain.

But with more and more cases coming to courts in which the darknet has played a substantial role, it’s as well for legal practitioners to be aware of what the darknet is – and develop better means to tackle it, and handle darknet-related cases.

Simply put, darknets are private peer-to-peer networks using unconventional methods to help preserve user anonymity. Darknets make up part of what’s called the ‘Deep Web’ – many millions of pages of web-based information and networks which won’t show up on any search engine such as Google.

Much of the darknet is reliant on a network known as TOR (The Onion Router), which began life as a military project , and not only encrypts data, but ‘bounces’ information through many proxy servers all over the world, staffed by volunteers. It’s thought the majority of the deep Web is all very above board, with academic databases and vast library catalogues making up the majority of the content, in addition to political dissidents and whistleblowers.

However, darknets facilitate the carrying-out of serious criminal activity: last month Brazilian police uncovered a child-abuse network reliant on the darkweb for allowing users to share images of child abuse.

Andrew Lewman, director of the Tor Project, insists there’s validity for users looking to preserve their anonymity: “The average person is mostly worried about spreading their information online, unscrupulous advertisers taking advantage of leaked data... and for the same reason that you close the door to go into your house.”

Probably the most famous and large-scale prosecution of illegal activity undertaken on the darknet was the case of Silk Road, the infamous deep Web trading network, where it was possible to buy everything from cannabis to sub-automatic weaponry. The FBI relied on a software misconfiguration on the Silk Road login, which revealed where the server was located.

Large-scale darknet prosecutions remain relatively rare. But questions of net security and data privacy continue to preoccupy legal practitioners and policy-makers alike: Nick Clegg’s recent announcement of a civil liberties body demonstrates the perilous balance between individual privacy and national security.

At Legastat, we believe that for firms and chambers to thrive, their practice must keep pace with the startling rate of change in tech. Perhaps the prospect of handling darknet cases seems a distant one – but a decade ago the notion of using eDiscovery to scan and redact many thousands of pages of evidence would have seemed equally futuristic. The role of legal tech has never been more central to developing a comprehensive and expert legal practice – and close partnership working with litigation support experts such as Legastat should be a primary concern. 

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