Olivia Kiernan, the author of Too Close to Breathe, on entering the Dark Web.

Olivia Kiernan delves behind the scenes of the Dark Web in Too Close to Breathe

Posted on March 29, 2018 in Behind the Scenes

As you sit back into your sofa, thumb flirting with your smartphone screen – like; share; swipe left, right – another network is operating beneath the gleaming white surface of the internet.

A reflection, maybe. A shadow on the surface of a puddle. A parallel universe spanning the virtual ground beneath our feet. The Dark Web.

I first heard about the dark web a few months before I began writing Too Close to Breathe. The very idea of it seemed both creepy yet completely unsurprising. In virtual life as well as real, beside the mundane, the dark hand of crime is at work. I felt naïve. Coddled. Of course! I thought. Of course there would be another population operating the spare networks and intranets that make up the other 95% of the world wide web. And then, because curiosity and the cat and all that, I couldn’t help lean in, put my hand into the darkness to see what might be on the other side.

The dark web can be accessed via a programme called Tor (The Onion Router). Anyone can do it; you just log on and take a look around. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Because you don’t know who might be looking back. And I mean that literally. Through your web cam. Oh you didn’t turn it on, you say, but someone did.

Here, IP addresses are encrypted using a complex looping system that makes them impossible to trace. And so dark web users, if they know what they’re doing, enjoy complete anonymity. Because of this, the dark web is a shifting world of criminal activity. Weapons, drugs, people trafficking, hacking, child porn – and, it’s rumoured, killings – can all be bought and sold there.

This feels far removed from our daily goings on. No regular person, not our friends nor our colleagues, would access the dark web. Would they? They’re not buying weapons or selling drugs in the dark sewers of the intranets. Right?

In 2013, the FBI finally succeeded in shutting down the dark web’s Amazon-like black market, Silk Road – a site where you could peruse and order various products, from books to heroin. After the founder was charged, he maintained his goal in setting up Silk Road was to give ‘. . . people the freedom to make their own choices.’ This is certainly an interesting perspective when considered from a privacy point of view (even more so, in light of the recent question of certain social media platforms harvesting information from users). As such, I noticed more people viewing the dark web as a useful alternative, one that would help protect their information.

So when I started my research for Too Close to Breathe, it wasn’t necessarily those criminals we can put into a box and label ‘bad’ that interested me. It was the idea of this dark and light existing next to one another and along that changeover – the ‘sliding scale’, as DCS Frankie Sheehan calls it – when it comes to making morally correct decisions.

And the more I looked into the dark web, the more I thought about how anonymity affects us.

It’s easy to convince yourself that what you put up on the internet reflects the real you. You post about your ‘wonderful’ life while slopped on the sofa eating Jammie Dodgers. And that’s okay. No harm. But what about when it gets a bit nasty? We watch people throw barbs at others on social media. We see people who would never say anything negative to someone’s face in the real world morph into aggressors from the safety of their keyboard. To send off an abusive message costs the abuser, in an emotional sense, nothing. It’s an unreal world with little real-world consequence. Yet, even if we’re not taking part, looking at it every day may heighten the bar of our own tolerance. Until eventually, perhaps, it feels like the real rules of morality no longer apply . . .

The Dark Web, for me, was the big daddy of this idea. It has no consequence to the user because no one knows who that user is. Here the smallest of bad urges can grow unchecked, in an environment that doesn’t judge.

In Too Close to Breathe, we see Frankie access the dark web to explore a site called Black Widow. The site has many different branches, including a chatroom. In this, more extreme users can exchange death-related fantasies, while others simply use it to seek comfort from other users. In fact, there have been some positive stories emerging from the dark web, about how victims of cyber-bullying, domestic abuse and stalking have used it to reach out to other victims, safe from the worry their abusers will find out.

And in Too Close to Breathe we witness medical student Amy Keegan reach out for reassurance. But on this occasion help is not listening. Instead, it is a dark presence that creeps into her life.

And that’s the trouble with the dark web. Sites are thrown up, money is exchanged or promises made, and then the sites disappear to reform elsewhere under a different name. It is a very uncertain place. Nothing is solid or accountable or traceable. The perfect playground for evil. The perfect place for a killer who likes to play dead.

Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan is out on 5 April. 

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