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Online Challenges: IRC Adds New Challenges in Online Information Exchange
by Stephen Arnold

Editor’s Note: Stephen E. Arnold worked for Data Courier, which produced the ABI/INFORM, Business Dateline, and Pharmaceutical News Index databases, among others. Prior to retirement, he provided consulting services to clients worldwide. In 1989, Mr. Arnold received the Eagleton Lectureship Award from the Association for Information Science and Technology. 1998 he received The Gale Group / Online, Inc. "Best Technical Paper in 1997." In 2003, he received the Malcom Hill Lectureship Award from the New York State Library Association / Tri-County Library System. In 2008, he also received the OSS Golden Candle Award for his contributions to open source intelligence. He has written a number of online-centric books, including Dark Web Notebook, which explores the online world of the hidden Internet. To purchase the book, point your browser to https://gum.co/darkweb. The PDF book has an ISBN, a table of contents, and an index. 175 pages with illustrations.

Abstract: This article discusses what librarians need to know about the Dark Web. It updates a 2015 Guest Forum by the author entitled “The Dark Web and Library Patrons: A 21st Century Challenge”, <https://www.informedlibrarian.com/guestForum.cfm?FILE=gf1711.html>

In my Dark Web Notebook (www.xenky.com/darkwebnotebook), I point out that increased censorship of public information services will drive some online and communications underground.

Censorship works like a pastry cook squeezing icing to decorate a cake. In the case of restricting what’s online, the squeeze injects users and information into the hidden Internet.

The actions of elected officials are likely to increase Dark Web activity. Within the last three months, usage of the The Onion Router software bundle or Tor has increased. The Tor user report through November 2017 illustrates the traffic increase:



Source: https://metrics.torproject.org/userstats-relay-country.html

Hate speech groups like Stormfront have made a bee line to the Dark Web. The “Dark Web” is one of the hidden Internet services that requires special software to access. In November vendors of contraband substances went offline, but new vendors set up shop almost immediately. The Dark Web is more like an expanding online Wild West than an obscure corner of the Internet.

One interesting shift is that old-school communication services are undergoing a renaissance. The decades-old Internet Relay Chat now offers such features as drag-and-drop information sharing and obfuscation methods offering an alternative to cumbersome Dark Web software.

Recently an announcement by a major media company drew more attention to the digital underground of hidden online services.

The New York Times is now available via Tor, a decision which surprised me. The Dark Web is usually associated with illegal activities like the contraband marketplaces AlphaBay and Silk Road. Anonymity and encryption go hand-in-hand with Dark Web access.

Many do not know that DuckDuckGo, Facebook, and other high-profile companies have explored the Dark Web and made their services available to Dark Web users. Since the newspaper's announcement in October 2017, the reasons for the Dark Web presence are not clear.

For libraries, a popular information source like the New York Times on the Dark Web may spark discussions about what’s publicly available for students, patrons, and researchers.

Tor, short for The Onion Router, has been available for more than a decade. Queries for the term Dark Web on Bing, Google, Yandex, and the less well known iSeek.com return a wealth of information.

Scanning these search results, even a casual review of each service’s first two Web pages, would give the impression that the Tor-accessible sites require learning a different method of online access. Once the "straight dope" is in hand, the "Dark Web" search results present links to sites about drugs and other blatantly problematic products and services.



Source: http://www.iseek.com

Consider iSeek.com (www.iseek.com), a search service offered by Vantage Labs LLC. Notice that the first suggested topic is the "Dark Side of the Internet." The second topic identified by the system's entity identification routine is Ashley Madison, a Web site associated with behaviors between consenting adults and the sale of Ashley Madison "customer" data on the Dark Web days after the security breach was made public.

Accessing the Dark Web is easy, particularly if filtering software does not place certain sites on a blacklist. A person using Chrome, Edge, Firefox, or Safari can navigate to www.tor2web.org. The instructions for accessing Dark Web sites are explained clearly. If a library's public computers are allowed to access Tor2Web.org, a library's computers or public network can be used to explore information which may pose risks to some. A clever public terminal user can insert a bootable USB drive into a computer. When the machine is restarted, Tails and the Tor software bundle will be available.



Source: http://www.tor2web.org

A text-centric technology from the Stone Age of online access is capturing attention. Do you remember IRC or Internet Relay Chat?

The idea behind IRC sessions is simple. Two or more people engage in a real-time conversation. A person wishing to engage in a chat downloads an application called an IRC client. IRC itself is not a secure protocol, but the Tor browser can be used as a proxy in order to route communications via the Tor network. The chats are enabled by IRC servers. IRC.org, a not-for-profit organization, provides a useful list of links to allow anyone to identify chat-resources. http://www.irc.org/links.html Plus, detailed technical information is available in RFC 1459 at https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1459.

The major development in chat concerns private and secure browser-based chat services. Examples range from Mibbit WebChat (https://www.mibbit.com/) to CGI IRE (http://cgiirc.org/). CGI IRE is interesting because it works when the user is "stuck behind a restrictive firewall. A demonstration of the browser-based utility is available at http://cgiirc.blitzed.org/.

Dark Web and i2p chat software are also available; for example, https://chatstep.com/ states:

Chatstep allows files and images to be shared among groups of people with ease and simplicity. To do so start by dragging in your media into the chat window. Your content will be instantly available to everybody in the chat room. If the media dragged in is an image, a preview of the image will be displayed with a color-coordinated frame. Additionally if the attached media is a file, a hyperlink to download the attachment is rendered. The lack of accounts coupled with the ability to create rooms in seconds makes Chatstep the most effective and flexible way to exchange files and related media.

Most of the libraries with which I am familiar have safeguards in place to prevent Dark Web access, i2p sessions, and real-time IRC conversations. However, the increased censorship of content by Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Twitter, among other firms, is forcing some users to find new ways to communication, share information, and find like minded individuals.

Our research for the Dark Web Notebook revealed three significant areas ripe for innovation for bad actors. These are:

What steps can libraries take today to prepare for the innovation triggered by stepped up scrutiny of online services?

First, libraries want to make staff aware that oversight remains important. Awareness of what patrons and users are doing remains important.

Second, vendors of filtering and security tools will be upgrading their products and services. Learning about what's available and verifying what works and what does not must precede renewing for another year.

Third, first-hand exploration of chat-centric services can help keep those working in a library in touch with these communication and information-sharing channels.
As we reported in the Dark Web Notebook, one important wave of innovation will be in making "old" technology new again.

Net net: Public access terminals require vigilance. Security procedures and software remain priorities regardless of library type.

Copyright 2017 by Stephen E. Arnold.

About the author:
See Editor’s Note above.