PR Pros: What you need to know about the Dark Web
You’re already familiar with the Surface Web, which simply refers to anything that can be indexed by and accessed through a search engine such as Google or Bing. Here’s the thing: as expansive as the Surface Web might feel, this only represents approximately 4% of the Internet. The other 96% is termed the Deep Web.
Some of the Deep Web is un-indexed for legitimate reasons – think Facebook profiles which are obscured by a login page, corporate intranets, online banking and other paid-for services such as video streaming or digital newspapers. That said, there is a portion of the Deep Web that is intentionally hidden for sometimes devious or unlawful purposes – and this is called the Dark Web. In this article, we tell you everything you need to know about the Dark Web, the risks associated with it and how PR professionals can utilise the Dark Web in their work.
What goes on in the Dark Web?
Yes, there are plenty of illegal transactions facilitated by the Dark Web, but contrary to popular belief, that’s not all that the Dark Web is about.
#1 – eCommerce
There are plenty of eCommerce sites which sell counterfeit or grey-market goods on the Dark Web. These websites sell anything from pirated content to financial information, to illicit drugs and prescription pharmaceuticals. The now shut down Alphabay, for example, basically operated like eBay.
On that note: while people automatically think about members of powerful crime syndicates when they think of the Dark Web, Dark Web users are actually pretty varied. A good portion of these users consists of small-time hackers or even regular people who are simply looking to buy compromised Netflix accounts that allow them to watch shows free of charge.
#2 – Terrorism-related activities
The specific details of how terrorists use the Dark Web isn’t very well-documented but we do know that terrorists use Bitcoin to purchase firearms, bomb-making materials and false passports on the Dark Web.
#3 – Chat forums
The Dark Web comprises of plenty of forums where criminals exchange tips and discuss their hacking activities. Personal information is also put up for sale on these forums.
#4 – Journalism & PR
Because the Dark Web provides its users with a veil of anonymity (and hence, security), it’s developed into somewhat of a haven for the journalism industry. Reporters Without Borders recommend the use of Tor – short for the ‘The Onion Router’, a free software for enabling anonymous communication – to access the dark web as part of a “survival kit” for journalists reporting from countries where they are at risk to get arrested. Tor is also recommended by Human Rights Watch as well as by Global Voices and even sponsored by the International Broadcasting Bureau (the broadcaster behind Voice of America and Radio Free Asia).
ProPublica, which is a well-respected investigative news and journalism organisation, joined the Dark Web back in 2016. The organisation launched a hidden version of its news site on the Tor network. The move, ProPublica says, allows the company to securely communicate with sources and it also enables them to cater to readers from countries censoring content.
In 2017, The New York Times followed suit. According to Runa Sandvik, the company’s Director of Information Security, The New York Times’ Dark Web site enables the organisation to serve readers who are blocked from accessing their main site or those who are uncomfortable with local network monitoring for example by their employers.
Even Facebook gets in on the game – There are no recent estimates but back in 2016, over 1 million people accessed Facebook via the dark web.
Risks of the Dark Web for PR professionals
There are numerous threats coming from the dark web which communication professionals need to be aware of and prepare for. Given we live in a world where data is easily created and shared through ever-increasing levels of interconnectivity, cyber attacks are a real and daily concern. In a recent report, security firm McAfee said that the global cost of cybercrime exceeded $600 Billion in 2017. Consulting firm PwC estimates that about 90% of large enterprises will have to manage some form of a security breach. Research firm Forrester says that back in 2015 already 60% of brands will have discovered a breach of sensitive data – a number expected to have risen since then. The potential risks for a brand’s reputation, never mind the bottom line, are therefore enormous.
Consequently, PR pros should follow these tips to minimise the possible negative impact of such attacks:
#1 – Preparation is key
It’s crucial to be informed of coming attacks and that requires a proactive monitoring of the Dark Web for any mentions of your brand, product or key personnel to become aware of threats. Typically, attacks are planned with a long lead time and the discussions over said attacks in the Dark Web can be identified if you have the right technology.
#2 – Identify any breaches as quickly as possible
Any actual breaches should be identified as quickly as possible, ideally in real-time – and consider the risk of any threats coming from inside your organisation too. Any possible fallout and damage can be minimised with real-time or near real-time alerts.
#3 – Raise awareness, internally and within your network
Education of management, employees, partners within your network as well as customers is of utmost importance. Focus on those parts of the organisations first that handle sensitive data with the protection of Intellectual Property being one of the most important areas for brand owners to get active.
#4 – Engage with officials, early on
Preparation and prevention are important but so is sharing of data and findings with authorities such as the UK’s National Crime Agency or Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office. This will help to put criminals out of business.
#5 – Do not engage within the Dark Web
PR professionals who are researching their client’s target audience or carrying out other activities on the Dark Web should take care to not draw unnecessary attention and make themselves a target. In essence, PR pros should take a passive approach and stay clear from engaging with other Dark Web users directly for example on forums or chatrooms.
#6 – Proactively identify phishing attempts
On top of this, PR pros who are utilising the Dark Web should also keep an eye out for phishing activities where hackers pretend to be from a legitimate website or company and steal your login details and passwords. While phishing is pretty common on the Surface Web, it’s even more rampant on the Dark Web. If you’re browsing a forum and someone posts a link recommending a website or a platform, for example, this could very well be a phishing attempt. Do note that URLs on the Dark Web often contain convoluted strings of words and this means that it’s easier to mistake a phishing address for a legitimate website’s address.
How PR pros should work with the Dark Web
#1: Understand your target audience
As a PR pro, it’s your job to dig deep and understand the psyche of your client’s target audience. If your client’s ideal customer is someone who’s tech-savvy and guards their privacy fiercely, for example, they might spend a great deal of their time on the Dark Web (as opposed to the Surface Web).
Under such circumstances, it’d be helpful for PR pros to familiarise themselves with the Dark Web, especially the sites that their client’s target audience might frequent. This way, they can gather certain insights on the target audience’s needs and pain points and use these to craft more compelling PR campaigns.
#2: Identify threat intelligence
By researching on the Dark Web, you can potentially obtain valuable threat intelligence which isn’t typically accessible through conventional media monitoring. You might be able to identify data or news leaks from a company, for example, and take measures to ensure that these don’t make their way to mainstream media.
Andrei Barysevich, a Dark Web expert who’s worked as a consultant for the FBI cyber division, says he’s seen a multinational software company using the Dark Web to prevent the sale of the source code of an enterprise software that hadn’t been released. According to Barysevich, the threat actor was an insider who was employed by the company and he was attempting to sell the code on the Dark Web for $50,000.
The bottom line? As a PR professional, it’s important that you look out for your client’s best interests – and this entails notifying them and aiding them in taking appropriate measures if you realise that their data or private information has been compromised in any way.
#3: Build Dark Sites
Now, don’t get confused; Dark Sites and the Dark Web aren’t the same thing. Dark Sites – also known as Blind Sites, Black Sites or Ghost Sites – are sites which PR firms build for their clients in order to prepare for a crisis. These are fully functional, pre-packaged web pages that can be immediately published when a crisis strikes, and they may be used to either replace or supplement a company’s main website.
The key purpose of Dark Sites is to communicate accurate and timely information and demonstrate the company’s ability to own the message. During times of crises (the MH70 flight disappearing, for example), the business facing said crisis is likely to come under public scrutiny. In order to prepare your client for the onslaught of concerns and questions that they’ll face, simply set up a Dark Site which can be used to communicate responses to the media, remedies to the affected customers, and updates to the general public. Benefits include shortening response time and providing immediate reassurance to the general public.
A final word on the Dark Web
As John David put it, ‘as professional communicators, we must embrace technology and understand that cybersecurity and reputation management are joined at the hip‘. But the vast majority of PR pros fall into two camps – those who have no clue that the Dark Web exists and those who actively avoid the Dark Web due to a lack of understanding. That said, the Dark Web isn’t inherently “bad” or negative in any way – it’s simply a place where people want to keep their identity hidden.
Given that news platforms, resources for journalists and whistleblowing sites are increasingly popping up on the Dark Web, PR pros are likely to find these sections of the Dark Web both useful and informative. Now that the Dark Web is becoming more mainstream, it’s time for PR professionals to cast aside their doubts and prejudices and start exploring the 96% of the Internet which has previously been out of their reach.