What do you know about the dark web? Most teachers will have at least heard of it. They’ve been told that it is a place to buy illegal items such as guns and drugs, as well as a means of accessing all kinds of nefarious banned imagery and information, from child pornography to terrorist training manuals.
But despite the fact that awareness of the phrase “dark web” is widespread, few teachers actually know what it is, how it operates or – most worryingly – how many of their students might be accessing it. So what do they need to know?
What is now known as the dark web was originally developed by US military researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory in the 1990s as a way of allowing intelligence operatives to communicate completely anonymously online. The software they created, called Tor – short for original project name, The Onion Router – was eventually released into the public domain.
Put in simple terms, the Tor web browser, which can be downloaded free of charge, allows people to anonymously access the normal web, where the likes of Google and Amazon reside, but it also acts as a portal to another online world. This shadier side of the web is a place that Rick Holland, vice-president of strategy at Dark Shadows, a company that monitors and manages organisations’ digital risk, likens to “a bazaar for criminals” that can be accessed from the privacy of your own home.
The websites that operate on the dark web don’t look like the sort of thing you might normally access online, according to Colin Tankard, managing director at cyber-security consultancy Digital Pathways.
“The experience isn’t anything like Google,” he says. “It’s not easy to navigate and it’s not brightly coloured. It’s dark and dreary and full of command lines.”
And these sites don’t sell the kinds of things that you might find via Google. Criminal gangs have taken over the dark web to sell items such as drugs, guns and child pornography. And, thanks to the anonymity function built into Tor, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to trace users back to the computer they are using.
Tor versus Google
That probably sounds very scary and has you planning a PSHE lesson in your head already, but Joss Wright, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, would urge you to pause and read on. He feels that the dangers of the dark web have been exaggerated.
“It’s probably had a disproportionate level of attention in comparison with its actual use or threats,” he argues. “It’s very niche, it’s very small, and for every bit of illegal content on the dark web, most people would find it very much easier to find it on the normal web. It’s much easier to do a Google search for ‘terrorist training manuals’ than it is to find this sort of material on the dark web.”
Wright adds that there is little danger of children stumbling across the dark web accidentally because to access it you have to first download the Tor browser, then know the exact address of the website you want to access – on the dark web there is no search tool, such as Google, to help you navigate your way around.
He adds that even those who are using the Tor browser are largely not doing so for illegal purposes. “It’s almost certain that the overwhelming majority of people who use Tor do not use it to access the dark web,” says Wright. “Say, for example, that I wanted to do a Google search that was a little bit embarrassing. I might turn on Tor so that no one would know I was making that search.”
Censorship or enlightenment?
That’s not to say teachers should ignore the risks involved in accessing the dark web.
Kathryn Tremlett, a helpline practitioner at South West Grid for Learning, a not-for-profit charitable trust that was a founding member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, says that in the first instance, teachers should familiarise themselves with Tor.
“It’s important to know how it works, so having a play yourself is the best way for teachers to find out about it,” she says.
After that, Wright advises having a “frank and open discussion” about the dark web rather than censoring or banning its use.
“The students who are most likely to use the dark web are the ones who already know all about it,” says Wright. “As for the students who don’t know about it, I really honestly think that if you tell them about it, they are unlikely to jump through the technical barriers to use it.”
Tankard believes that another effective tactic is to employ the fear factor. “The dark web can be a bad place,” he says. “So I don’t think schools and education bodies should steer away from talking about it, but the approach should be more about the fear. The fear factor should be the trigger for people to say ‘it might be interesting, but do I really want to go there?’”
In addition to educating staff about the risks, Holland thinks that schools should also run workshops for parents to make sure that they can reinforce the fear-factor message at home.
“Parents become very protective once they understand the risks,” he says.
But ultimately, according to Wright, this should be secondary to making kids better equipped to deal with the normal web. Only then, he argues, should you tackle the “spectre” of the dark web.
Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist