What would it be like to be invisible? In the 1897 science-fiction novella “Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells, a scientist concocts a potion that makes him invisible. Even though the scientist’s intentions start out good, he gradually descends into a life of arson, theft and murder. “An invisible man is a man of power,” the scientist realizes, as he proceeds to take advantage of others and lose what remains of his conscience.
There is still no technology that can make physical humans invisible, but it is possible to be anonymous, and in a sense “invisible,” on the Internet by downloading Tor software and surfing what is known as the dark net. Whether this is a good or bad thing, and whether dark net users are prone to become criminal and corrupt, is the subject of a new Israeli documentary, “Down the Deep, Dark Web,” which premiered July 16 at the Jerusalem Film Festival and will later air on Israel’s Channel 1.
The one-hour documentary, which is directed by Duki Dror and Tzahi Schiff and narrated by Israeli-American filmmaker Yuval Orr, examines the argument that the dark net is a very bad place, but then turns around and suggests it may be our only hope for freedom in the digital age.
In an opening scene of the film, Orr meets a white-hat hacker named Danor Cohen who appears to be hacking into the personal computers of unsuspecting residents of apartment buildings on a dark Tel Aviv street.
“I can enter anyone’s computer within a 100-meter range,” Cohen tells Orr, adding ominously, “there is nothing stopping anyone with enough time from doing almost anything.” “Almost anything” includes buying drugs or stolen goods, human trafficking, even hiring a hitman.
Ninety-nine percent of the Internet is not indexed by Google or popular search engines, the documentary explains. This 99% is called the deep web. A subset of the deep web is called the dark net, and consists of anonymous web sites where people can interact while hiding their activity from authorities.
In one scene, Orr downloads Tor and begins to surf the dark net, and what he finds is hair-raising. In addition to ubiquitous drugs and guns, there are groups devoted to neo-Nazism, animal torture, pedophilia and even a site for cannibals, “Cannibal Cafe,” whose slogan is “Serving Humanity.”
Nir Elkabetz, the head of investigations for the Israel Police cyber crime unit, tells Orr that more and more crime is moving from the physical world to online. “Why? People think in the online world they can be anonymous and commit crimes without getting caught.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Orr says that Channel 1 had originally commissioned a documentary focusing on the dark aspects of the dark net. “But when we looked around we saw there had already been a lot of films about that –investigative pieces, from VICE to the BBC, and there was not a lot we could add to that conversation.”
That’s why Orr and his team decided to focus the second half of their documentary on the so-called crypto-anarchists and like-minded activists who created the dark net. Orr even travels to a crypto-anarchist conference in Prague, where perhaps not unexpectedly, he is not allowed to film inside.
“They didn’t [invent the dark net] because they believed very strongly in people being able to buy drugs without anyone knowing they had done it, right? There was something else there — a deeper political ideology and philosophical underpinning, and that was what interested us the most.”
In Berlin, Orr travels around in a cab with two crypto-anarchists whose faces are obscured, one by a ski mask and the other by a dust mask and sunglasses.
“It’s to avoid facial recognition software,” the man in the ski mask explains.
Crypto-anarchists, the documentary informs us, believe that the nation-state has had its day, and that it will soon be replaced by voluntary decentralized communities where there is no coercion. On a practical level, many are computer programmers who develop privacy-enhancing software like bitcoin apps and VPN technology.
Wearing a face mask everywhere may seem extreme, but one of the masked activists explains his motivations.
“Privacy is to ideas what evolution is to biology,” the man, who gives his name only as “Smuggler,” tells Orr. “You need local ecosystems, you need organisms evolving. If all humanity moves one direction, one bug destroys the whole thing. Think of the Third Reich if it was just the Third Reich globally, with no other countries stopping it.”
Asked if he is being paranoid, Smuggler replies: “Why do you have curtains in your flat? Why do you lock your door. People have gotten killed because of data collected about them,” he says, citing the Nazi round-up of Jews using government registries.
Orr says he is sympathetic to the crypto-anarchists argument, and points out that both the state and large corporations like Facebook and Google are guilty of conducting mass surveillance against us and therefore taking away some of our power.
“I felt their ideas deserved a platform. We’re arriving at a point in history where the idea of the nation-state is losing currency. Look at the political system as a whole, in any given place there aren’t a lot of viable options. The option that’s coming up in most places is a sort of right-wing, populist neo-fascist world order.”
In the film, Orr wonders what would happen if we got rid of all nation-states. Would there be chaos or a new beginning? Would we all go around stealing from and killing each other, or would a harmonious new world order emerge?
“The major question is, if you give people the ability to do bad things using technology would they do it? he asks. “The crypto-anarchists and bitcoin enthusiasts say no, most people are inherently good. Most people will not do evil things with technology even if it allows them to do evil things.”