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Darknet provides lesson for IoT resilience

Katia Moskvitch


The notorious Darknet, that’s mostly used for illicit purposes, is better shielded against cyber-attacks than the internet, researchers have found. Their insights could lead to the development of a more resilient internet, crucial for the success of the Industrial Internet of Things, as more and more devices and machines are connected to the internet to improve productivity.

Darknet is a hidden network of web services, which can be accessed only with the help of communication protocols that protect user's privacy and anonymity, regardless of whether they have good or bad intentions.

“The Darknet is designed much more efficiently than the internet is currently designed,” says Manlio De Domenico, a physicist at Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, and one of the authors of the research. While the Darknet is aimed at maximising anonymity and cyber-security, the internet maximises speed and efficiency, he adds – making it much easier for hackers to damage the lines of communication supported by the internet, compared to the Darknet.

The “dark web” is a part of the world wide web, but can only be accessed with the help of communication protocols that guarantee privacy and anonymity. Once inside, users navigate from website to website using a browser, similar to the normal Internet.

The Darknet’s first prototype was developed in the US as a platform for secure communication. But as the name suggests, most of Darknet’s sites are ‘hidden’ – meaning that they have not been indexed by a search engine and can only be accessed if the user has the site’s address. While the internet provides the physical communication backbone, the Darknet is often used for dealing in illegal drugs, firearms and extreme forms of pornography, with products paid for in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

“The findings give powerful insights to build resilient communication networks, findings which could spill over to inform a more resilient quantum internet,” says Jacob Biamonte, a physicist at the University of Malta who was not involved in the research.

The scientists have analysed the Darknet’s resilience using the network theory, revealing that the Darknet is orders of magnitude more robust than the rest of the internet, because it relies on a totally different topology.

The main difference is that the Darknet is made of a very decentralised network of nodes -there are no general connection points for each city, region or country.  It is peer-to-peer, while the internet has highly interconnected hubs that, if taken down by attacks, can destabilise the whole system. 

“The internet topology is much more fragile than the Darknet topology, despite both of them being networked communication systems,” says De Domenico.

To understand why the Darknet is so robust, the team used a simple model that was able to reproduce the majority of the Darknet’s features and its extreme resilience to attacks. The approach was similar to a typical analysis researchers usually use to probe the robustness of a complex system.

The scientists built the structure of the Darknet from available data, and then simulated different types of attacks to dismantle it. “After each attack, we measured the response of the network – in other words, the amount of damage done by our attack,” says De Domenico.

As a benchmark, the team also performed the same analysis of the internet of autonomous systems.

“Our results should be understood in terms of attacks to the ‘system’ rather than to a specific individual,” says De Domenico . “For sure, we learned that if the internet were working like the Darknet, it would be much more difficult to disrupt – as the Darknet still represents the best way for netizens to surf safely and anonymously, without necessarily giving their private information to third parties, for free.”

Biamonte says that if the internet has the same peer-to-peer, hubless technology as the Darknet, it would be much harder for hackers to take it down. But while peer-to-peer file share and other communication platforms have already been developed, they typically work on top of the existing internet. "A fundamental change in the design of networks would have to take place to make them more robust in the same fashion as the Darknet," says Biamonte.

And such design could also be applied to many other contexts, argues De Domenico - for instance, helping companies to create more secure and robust communication infrastructure like intranets.

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