In our modern media age, it sometimes feels as though everyone in the entire world has noticed the same thing at the same time. So it is with the Deep Web and the darknes that lurk in the shadows – it was an obscure topic until few months ago, and now your grandparents have probably heard of them. Once the type of thing that only geeks (like me!) would think and/or talk about, the topic has now made the front cover of Time Magazine (in a piece by legendary fantasy author and critic Lev Grossman). It has also made national news (with the takedown of the infamous SIlk Road marketplace) and inserted itself into a far more noticeable place of prominence in our culture.
These hidden sites can be found through a collection of anonymous servers that enable a vivid underground of dissidents, hackers, criminals, law enforcement, drug runners and folks who seem like refugees from a James Bond movie. All you need is a specialized tool like TOR, and (if you believe the stories) you can live a secret life online. But should you care? As a character says in one of my novels, “you may not be interested in the deep web, but the deep web is very interested in you.”
In the past when we talked with clients about the dark sites of the deep web, people really thought that it sounded like something out of a William Gibson story, like Chiba City in Neuromancer, or the Night Market in Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker. But now companies are suddenly finding themselves confronting deep web issues as never before, whether because someone has “doxed” their employees or executives (by releasing personally identifiable information on persistent sites that cannot be taken down), because their products are being counterfeited and distributed by online networks, because they are being defamed on chat boards that cannot be reached let alone turned off, because someone has used TOR to anonymously hack their passwords — the possibilities are endless, troubling, and happening now. If you want to steal someone’s trade secrets and want to ensure that the transaction is untraceable, suddenly there are tools to accomplish exactly that. If you’ve learned how to copy a product using a 3-D printer, you can distribute the plans. If you want to cause trouble, you can hire someone directly to do that, pay them in bitcoins, and watch the damage from afar.
As a lawyer, it is impossible not to see how this is going to have a dramatic impact on IP, privacy, and nearly every other thing we do. The Internet of Things is coming shortly (the FTC just held a workshop on the topic this week), and the facial recognition technologies and environmental advertising predicted in Minority Report are no longer futuristic fictions. 3-D and electronic printing promises to give ever smaller groups the ability to make things based on electronic schematics without access to heavy industry. More and more information will be available about more people, and will be available to more people – and the fact that there are genuinely secure ways where those who are so inclined can use that data for criminal purposes should give everyone pause.
To be sure, all of this seems rather abstract, and it can sound like a tabloid scare tactic. But there are some things that everyone can do to deal with the risks in their own lives. First, engage in some data security hygiene: change your passwords regularly, don’t pass them out, don’t allow them to be easily engineered by people who know a few random facts about you. Second, think about whether you are in a business where people will want to copy your products, will want to pretend to be you, will want to steal your information. If you are that type of business, it is worth checking from time to time to see if you have been targeted. And finally, as always, if is critical that everyone in this day and age try to stay abreast of what is happening in the world of tech – it is easy to assume that because you make donuts, or own a small clothing store, or manage a bank, or run a hedge fund, that you don’t need to know about the cutting edge developments coming down the pipe. But you do. The time when you could just stick to your knitting and ignore the tech world is past, and you need to assume that the tech world is very interested in you, indeed.