• United States



by Sandy Kendall

Are Darknets Dangerous?

Sep 22, 20032 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

The lawsuits brought by the Recording Industry Association of America against file-sharing individuals have been mentioned in the news so much that the number 261 (the number of subpeonas issued) now rings as a unique marker for the whole story. These 261 may be in trouble, scapegoats for the rest, but the word on the street is that file-sharing is here to stay. Many dedicated file-sharers are moving to new methods to protect their privacy, such as the so-called darknet.

According to a paper written by authors at Microsoft and called The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution,” the darknet is not a separate physical network but an application and protocol layer riding on existing networks. Darknets let individuals set up password-protected networks that operate on a members-only basis and typically encrypt all data sent. A Business Week story last week quoted spokespeople from two file-sharing websites saying downloads of their software (used to create darknet networks) have increased markedly since the Sept. 8 filing of the 261 RIAA lawsuits.

But not all darknet users are music and video-swapping scofflaws. Businesses can use the darknet to exchange data with outside partners or to share results among colleagues, particularly in trade-secret-filled activities like R&D. And the darknet can help protect citizens and dissidents in less open countries, such as Iran or China, as they access information their governments forbid them from seeing, like

A Sept. 15 story about the darknet in The New York Times reports that developers of the new file-trading systems say there is nothing illegal about writing software that helps people keep secrets&Indeed, United States courts have held that file-sharing software may not be banned if it has both legitimate and illegal uses.

And that is the hazy area we live in. While the darknet provides lawyers a way to privately share electronic files in litigation (maybe even in prosecuting or defending the 261&), biotech workers a way to collaborate on genetic discoveries and others a way to safely exchange sensitive information for legitimate purposes, it still works great for pirating music, distributing child pornography, planning terrorist attacks and sharing other nefarious content.

Do we leave it at that? Even if absolute secrecy in a network were possible, should it be allowed? Are darknets going to end up doing more harm than good?