Hundreds of millions of hacked records land on the dark web each year. This, along with drug marketplaces, hired killers, and petabytes of illicit content (of all kinds) have given the dark web a well-deserved, nasty reputation.
It also happens to be a technological, sociological, and economical marvel that provides lessons for pretty much any company or brand. No villainy required.
The dark web operates on the same Internet as the conventional web but requires special software to access. Most often this is Tor, a project started by employees of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and continued under DARPA in the mid-90s. Originally designed to protect communications, it’s now a volunteer-led and operated project available on nearly every popular computing platform.
Ugly, inconvenient, and impersonal
If you were to go to tor.org and load a site running on the dark web right now, you'd probably feel like you stepped into the internet’s not-so-long-ago past. Everything would seem uncannily familiar. Dark web marketplaces are gaudy e-commerce hubs with star ratings, badly designed “buy now” buttons, and awkwardly cropped thumbnails. Blogs have a GeoCities patina that will make you think of the first time you opened and closed an HTML tag.
The differences, however, are more than skin deep. The defining characteristic of the dark web is decentralization. Traffic is routed through many intermediate servers and layers upon layers of encryption, all with the goal of preserving anonymity.
Having privacy as a core design principle changes a lot more than just how traffic gets bounced around. It’s a Galapagos effect—the different ecosystem forced things to evolve in different ways. For instance, there are no big analytics companies selling cohorts and lookalikes; the necessary data doesn't get collected in the first place. And if it does, it's so heavily encrypted it's pretty much useless.
The hokey appearance of the dark web belies the power and ingenuity of the technology that’s powering it. Besides that, the tech we take for granted here (on the conventional web) doesn't work there (on the dark web). There are no easily verified identities, or conveniences like geo-location, or algorithms that offer up just the right product based on your browsing history.
In fact, the buyers and sellers on the dark web want none of that. A collective need for a marketplace built upon near-absolute privacy and user-savvy, rather than a simple and seamless user-experience, essentially created the dark web.
Differentiation through style and feel, not looks and logos
We all know why brands desire differentiation in the world of everyday customer experiences and transactions. On the dark web, however, the stakes of successful differentiation are immeasurably high.
As Jamie Barlett noted in his book “The Dark Net,” dark web customers can often tell impostors from the real thing based on the feel and unmistakable minutiae of the experience alone. When marketplaces have to move after the FBI catches up with them, buyers can often smell the trap.
Why? Sellers have unique communication styles and payment systems that are instantly recognizable. In this situation, the "brand" can't be just a name or logo. It really, truly, has to be something someone can just feel. Because getting duped might mean going to prison.
Unlocking the real value of cryptocurrency
Payment systems on the dark web are largely based on cryptocurrency. Most transactions happen through escrow services, and many are automated. The dark web is shady, no pun intended, but the automated contract fulfillment that keeps the cryptocurrency flowing is not. It’s pretty amazing, actually. In fact, it could improve transactions on the everyday web, as well—from the smallest artist on Etsy to the biggest players in e-commerce.
That's because it removes any doubt that a non-delivery complaint is legitimate, which means a customer service rep can confidently issue a refund and save the brand from a dreaded one-star review. It could protect customers from falling prey to fraud by verifying that other deliveries have been successful.
The high level of identity protection
You knew this was coming.
Encryption on the dark web is a cornerstone of the identity protection it offers its users. High levels of security are necessary for making people feel comfortable as they go about their business (and these are often unscrupulous people with good cause to feel uncomfortable). The only thing more valuable to dark web users than the wares they’re seeking or selling is a reliable, portable, and verifiable identity. Another such thing an identity could be good for—healthcare.
As Boomers and millennials both enter the healthcare system in ever-growing numbers over the next few years, managing their digital information (records, treatments, care networks) is going to get even more difficult. Dealing with sensitive personal information on a mass scale is a thorny challenge—so much so that a lot of information in the healthcare world isn’t digital. It’s just too sensitive, and responsibly managing it is too scary.
But the principles of the dark web (privacy at the core, ownership of your personal data) are a good foundation for managing that scary proposition. Making your health information truly yours, and portable (take it to any care provider and hand it over securely and then take it with you when you go) would be a powerful change. And a doable one, too.
It may be a shadow realm, but…
There are already signs that the ideas discussed above are finding a place in the (comparatively legitimate) digital world. Companies like Apple have been very outspoken about their concerns with holding onto people’s data. And start-ups like Bloom are making portable, ownable digital identity products that streamline credit applications without sacrificing security.
So, I’d argue that the ideas at the heart of the dark web aren’t just the hidden machinery of some shadowy netherworld. Rather, they’re the shadow of our future—a solution to the problem of doing things online without putting ourselves or our money at serious risk. Isn’t that worth checking into?
Scott King is the strategy director at Critical Mass, an experience design agency.