Let’s hear it for the bad guys: What the Dark Web can teach us about trust

Drug dealers, pornographers, gun runners, hackers and cyber criminals — shifty, unreliable and untrustworthy types, right? They certainly don’t feature in many surveys of the most trusted business sectors. And yet when it comes to trust as the foundation for how we both live our lives and engage with businesses online, it seems criminals can teach us all a lesson or two.

As unlikely as it seems, they have created an environment in which millions of dollars of trade is conducted quickly and reliably on e-commerce sites boasting features familiar to anyone who has shopped online. Vendors and customers — with a lot to lose if caught — happily trade contraband in a marketplace built on the seemingly opposing pillars of trust and anonymity.

This all happens in a place known as the Dark Web. And it is moving out from the shadows into the mainstream as its technologies and methods offer an alternative internet for people growing increasingly concerned about what is happening to their personal data.

A thriving underworld

The Dark Web achieved infamy with a site called Silk Road which was shut down by the FBI in 2013, leading to the arrest of its founder Ross Ulbricht who was last year sentenced to life in prison. Many similar sites have since popped up and flourished in its place. The idea that they could serve as an unlikely working example of a very successful trust framework was floated by Don Thibeau, Chairman and Executive Director of the Open Identity Exchange (OIX), whose activities include helping the UK Government develop its Verify secure identity service.

Speaking at December’s PIE2015 event in London, he described the Dark Web as “an ecosystem of the most evil people in the world” before highlighting the irony of its crowning achievement.

“How can these people trust each other?” he asked. “The pornographers, the drug dealers, the arms merchants — how can they transact in a trusted way, globally, at great volume, at high velocity and in a variety of applications? How can there be an open exchange of that kind of information? If they can do it, can’t we?”

Of course, nobody is suggesting that drug dealers and pornographers deserve our respect or gratitude. It is the means and not the ends that are of interest. Criminal Dark Web sites feature detailed product information, customer reviews, messaging services, special offers — all the things their legitimate counterparts do. Crucially, they offer the same kind of reliability of experience rather than ripping people off, thus creating a sustainable business model. Transactions are made using digital currency Bitcoin and are recorded and verified through a distributed public ledger called the block chain. In this way, such sites build trust by offering a straightforward transaction built on transparency, albeit achieved with complete anonymity.

Don told Internet of Me: “What they are doing right — their great accomplishment — is that they are creating trust in a zero trust environment. The bad guys have adopted the very same trust mechanisms that we see on Amazon and eBay, such as product samples and consumer reviews.

“It’s not surprising, because if we look back to the early days of the internet or, for that matter, the early days of the printing press, the early adopters were the bad guys, the pornographers. Right after Gutenberg printed the Bible he started printing pornography because that’s what sold, right?

“And it’s the same thing with the internet. The leading-edge innovations from a technology point of view came from early entrepreneurs in the adult industry. The reason it’s an interesting dynamic is that the same thing is occurring now. The bad guys are showing us how to do it. We will see these sort of trust mechanisms become even more widespread.”

The lure of the dark

It’s that sense of a broader appeal and application that makes what’s happening on the Dark Web highly relevant to the personal data economy. The growing appeal of its practices has nothing to do with a sudden spike in demand for drugs, guns or pornography. In fact, the Dark Web is not inherently criminal and plenty of people use it for perfectly legitimate purposes. At its heart is the Tor browser which allows you to use the internet — including regular, everyday websites — without your activity being trackable. It provides access to servers that bounce internet communications around to disguise your location and that of sites you visit which, according to the Tor website, “allows people to improve their privacy and security”.

Total privacy and security? Using the internet without being constantly tracked? It’s easy to see the appeal for the growing number of people deeply concerned about how their personal data is used to track and target them. It is widely accepted that the current situation is broken. Information is extracted, scraped, bought and sold with little regard or the people whose data it is.

Ad blocking tools are enjoying soaring popularity, the understandable response to an ad tech industry that for years has used and abused personal information and is now feeling the backlash. High profile hacks and data breaches, along with the revelations of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden have made many people deeply suspicious of any organisation holding their data.

Jamie Bartlett, author of The Dark Net, gave a TED Talk last year in which he said: “I think things like the Dark Net markets — creative, secure, difficult to censor — I think that’s the future. And the reason it’s the future is because we’re all worried about our privacy . . . We’re worried about what happens to our data. We’re worried about who might be watching us.”

A fork in the road

While the Dark Web proves building trust in a data-driven economy is perfectly achievable — even in the most extreme circumstances — any trend towards withdrawing from sharing data as a matter of course is troubling. We are at a crucial point in the exciting evolution of the personal data economy, with genuinely beneficial innovations within reach that promise to transform our lives. From the way we manage our health and finances, and from wearable tech through to the Internet of Things and entire smart cities, data is the fuel driving technological advances. However, such things rely on a greater degree of data sharing to deliver on their promises and to allow organisations to create products, services and experiences that are tailored to our needs and demands.

For that to happen the relationship we have with the businesses that use our data must be turned through 180 degrees. Sacrificing our data as the price of admission will no longer cut it. We should be the ones to own, control and benefit from it. Then, as we generate ever more information in our technology-driven lives, our data becomes richer and more valuable to us — and far more desirable, relevant and usable for businesses.

It is they who will come knocking on our door with a suitable value proposition offered in exchange for access to relevant personal data.

Earning our trust will be their price of admission.

Businesses should hold only what data they truly need from us, while being totally transparent about what they do with it. An open, honest transaction that respects our data and delivers mutual benefit from it. This isn’t some utopian option — it is an absolute imperative. A lot of work is being done and progress is being made to find solutions to the many challenges facing the personal data economy. PIE2015 and the many events like it are testament to the will that exists to realise and maximise its potential.

Putting the individual at the centre of their online life is the only credible route. If left with no alternative, more and more people will ‘go dark’ in pursuit of privacy. It is surely better to build our future in the light.