Bluedot, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Contact stage, July 8 2017.

There’s a sense at Bluedot sometimes of the stark difference between the utopia of the open air fields and the darker undercurrent of misdemeanour inside the science talks. Not that there’s anything dangerous or dodgy going on, more that there are confrontations within these fabric walls with the most profound and urgent human questions which can quickly lead to difficult places. And there’s no place darker than the murky shadow realm of the internet; the dark web that bubbles away beneath our cat videos and buzzfeeds like a rotting sewer.

Investigative journalist Geoff White is here to guide us quickly through this underworld in a ballsy talk which exposes the surprising origins and beating heart that drives the enterprise. He starts us off with a simple experiment: close your eyes and imagine you have an invisibility cloak. What is the first thing you do? White supposes a fair bit of criminality on our part and the nervous chuckles suggest he may be right. And so he sets out his stall.

From there White patiently explains how the dark web came to be and, like the best tales of criminality, it goes all the way to the top. The US Navy invented an encrypted second web for secretive usages but, with no one else using it, the secrecy was all but null and void. And so they set it free, quite deliberately, giving it to an open access group who spread it among their activists to fight various powers.

But, as White explains to an audience of techies, the problem came when the techies began tinkering and there was born the dark web, a nefarious undernet populated mostly by criminals where the exchange of nasty materials and illegal endeavours is commonplace.

White has the packed tent gripped as he casually strolls to his laptop and logs in to a live dark net forum site, 0Day, where hacking tutorials are offered and credit card scams are engineered. With a small degree of delight, White shows how a full service economy has emerged where even these most untrustworthy traders have to find ways of building good reputation in order to trade, and the site itself has to exercise a blacklist and validation techniques. The currency here, of course, is Bitcoin, the digital monetary system with its own set of rules.

White treats the whole thing with the fascination that comes of being an investigative journalist, calling it one of the largest ongoing social experiments currently active. Made by the US government who happily allow it to continue claiming that it effectively serves to keep criminality somewhat contained. White even suggests, in a statement I found a tad less convincing, that progress in tech is often led by those on the fringes of society and so the dark web may end up being of benefit to us all. Although I doubt that’s much comfort to those who have already suffered as a result of it.

Regardless, White’s concluding statement is a powerful one. Whatever the dark web is, whatever it becomes, it is a system which is putting a fundamental human question to the test: are you good because you want to be, or because you have to be? With that we leave the tent, blinking back into the glorious sun, happy perhaps that we don’t have that invisibility cloak, happy to keep our dark fantasies at bay.

David Hartley

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