Watching Down the Deep Dark Web (Israel 2016), the same week that I came across The Hour of the Furnaces (Argentina 1968), made me think about how the subversive role that was the raison d’etre of many documentary films has increasingly been supplanted by the internet. Down The Deep Dark Web explores ways in which the internet can be used to communicate secretively, while The Hour of the Furnaces, which revealed the horrors of the Argentinian dictatorship, is an example of a film that was made secretly in an attempt to support a resistance movement. People were arrested for making it; others for screening it.
Instead of underground film screenings we now have an underground region of the internet, suggests Israeli journalist Yuval Orr, who takes us on a journey to meet people who use the internet for covert activities as well as others who try to stop them .
I have to admit that even though I am a daily visitor to numerous websites, I didn’t realize that there is a huge reservoir of websites that Google and other search engines can’t reach. To enter the hidden world of the Dark Net, Orr explains, you simply download an app called Tor. Once connected, because of the way data is dispersed among numerous computers, you may now interact with others in complete anonymity. Your location and identity cannot be traced — or at least, that is what many believe.
Not surprisingly, many Dark Net operators come from the criminal world: drug dealers, child pornographers, money launderers, terrorists and contract killers.
As Orr reviews this dark side of the Dark Net, he takes us to a hitman website that advertises a sliding scale for killing different types of people. He is insulted when he sees that the going rate for knocking off a journalist is $65,000. “What? Is that all I’m worth?” he asks, with the self-deprecating humor that accompanies much of his on-screen narration.
But it is the bright side of the Dark Net that Orr really wants us to learn about. He introduces us to Smuggler and a group of other masked people that he meets at a clandestine conference in Prague. Smuggler is a self-proclaimed crypto-anarchist, a sort of geek-social activist hybrid. He and his colleagues refuse to divulge their real names and cover their faces to offset facial recognition technology. Smuggler exhibits a microchip he is working on, one of many technologies crypto-anarchists are developing to ensure that people can access the internet in complete privacy – without “Big Brother watching them.”
The Big Brother they refer to of course is the original all-knowing surveillance monster envisioned by George Orwell in his novel 1984. Smuggler frequently refers to Orwell’s prophetic dystopia, and suggests that our contemporary world is already pretty much there.
Indeed, one of the cyber security experts appearing in the film, a nonchalant reformed hacker, demonstrates to Orr, with seemingly effortless ease, how he can uncover the password to Orr’s bank account, Facebook account and just about anything else he wants.
The crypto-anarchists point out that the reason that privacy needs to be protected goes well beyond protection from theft. Privacy, says Smuggler, is to ideas what evolution is to biology.”” In a healthy ecosystem, in order to create diversity, you need local niches , where some ideas will die and some will prosper.”
Another advocate points out that in many countries in Africa it is only through the Dark Net that LGBT activists are able to freely communicate without fear of imprisonment.
But not all information has either political or commercial value. Is it possible, then, that the crypto-anarchists, have gone too far in their attempt to prevent governments and other agencies from collecting seemingly harmless information about people?
Smuggler warns that it is impossible to know today how information will be used in the future. He cites the example of how in the 1930s information was gathered “about the religion of people in certain countries” without anyone concerned about how that information would eventually be utilized. As Smuggler didn’t insist on having his voice distorted, his apparent German accent adds a note of poignancy to this observation.
On the other hand, government authorities are quick to suggest that they need to collect surveillance information to thwart the activities of terrorist groups like ISIS.
How then can criminals and terrorists be stopped while freedom of expression is maintained?
There is no easy answer but Down the Deep Dark Net does a good job of making us think about this question. One of the people we meet in the film who is wrestling with this dilemma is ironically a US government agent involved in tracking criminal use of the internet. She emphasizes that her agency tries to focus on catching “the pedophiles and other hard-core criminals.” But she then, almost casually, offers an insight that –coming from a government employee — is a bit surprising. In oppressive regimes , she says, revolutionary progress always starts underground. “If sometime in the future my government turns against me I would like to have something like that (the Dark Net).”
With the American elections approaching and an unpredictable new government looming on the horizon, her fears could be closer to becoming a reality than she may suspect.
Down the Deep Dark Net is an Israeli-French co-production narrated by Yuval Orr and directed by Duki Dror and Tzachi Shiff. The 55-minute film will have its international premiere at Dok Leipzig.