How real is the darknet? How disturbing does the content actually get? These questions have come into focus in recent days as a result of an online hoax involving a so called “red room” website. A “red room” is supposedly the online equivalent of a snuff video, a site where users can view a live stream of torture and murder.
The background to the hoax can be found in this article from Vice.com but essentially the premise was that the individuals concerned had captured a number of ISIS fighters who would be tortured, humiliated and ultimately killed on a live stream:
Expect fun games, mingle and torture as promised. All interactive. Still fully free. We will make at least the first hour family friendly, and explicitly warn you before things get violent.
The very existence of so called “Red Rooms” is a matter of some debate; a largely unsubstantiated online myth. That the libertarian ethos of online marketplaces such as the Silk Road had a dark side is well documented. The founder of the Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht was accused of procuring murders for hire online in order to safeguard his empire, but those were intended to be recorded only for billing purposes and not to be streamed live. The issues were examined in this Vice.com follow up article entitled "The real dark web doesn’t exist" which took a skeptical view of their existence, concluding that:
In reality, the dark web is a relatively tiny collection of difficult-to-reach sites, that, for criminals, deal in drugs, weapons, stolen data, and child pornography. On the brighter side, are sites for dropping sensitive documents to journalists, and that page that just endlessly tells cat jokes.
Of course there is nothing inherently wrong or illegal in the use of anonymous web browsing software such as TOR (see the examples referred to in this 2013 wired.com article for instance) and the benefits of such software for legitimate web users are obvious. However, we shouldn’t be too quick to write off the more sinister side of the dark web as mere fantasy. Red rooms as described above may not exist, and some of the scams are risible, but there are disturbingly similar sites that do exist and which law enforcement agencies worldwide are working to combat.
One illustration of the material that is available online is shown by the case of “Lux” otherwise known as Matthew David Graham, a 22 year old Australian student who recently pleaded guilty to 13 child pornography charges arising from his role as the head of a paedophile ring specialising in so called “hurtcore,” pornography comprising of torture and grotesque sexual acts involving children, toddlers and babies.
Graham’s path to infamy and perversion is perhaps a warning of how new technologies have allowed new forms of offending. His background is discussed here. Graham was described as a facilitator of online child pornography rather than an active abuser of children. The answer is unknowable, but the suggestion might be made that without easy access to such material, apparently without consequence or risk, Graham may never have become an offender at all. Indeed, even whilst committing offences online, Graham’s “real life” persona appears to have been deceptively normal.
The limitless potential for communication via the internet carries with it a degree of risk; people from anywhere in the world who share a view or an interest, no matter how obscure or in some cases obscene can find each other, group together and disseminate information within a group. A key result is that behaviour that is viewed as unacceptable at law or by society as a whole can be excused and normalised by the participants and their online peer group.
Again, although Graham was prosecuted by Task Force Astraea Victoria Police’s online child protection unit and the Australian federal police, the investigation appears to have been international in scope, involving Europol, the Canadian police and the FBI.
Graham is to be sentenced on February 3rd.