The Dark Net could soon be a lot brighter now that DARPA is developing a new tool that aims to root out criminal activity. Known as Memex, the technology is trying to map the connection between illicit advertisements with the suspected human traffickers who post them, the government says.
The military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been at work on Memex for at least a year, working with 17 contractors to find an effective way to monitor the Deep Web. The Deep Web makes up an estimated 90-percent of the Internet and can only be browsed with the Tor anonymity software. Defined as anything not listed by traditional search engines, the Deep Web is full of paywalled journalism, dense code, libertarian forums and criminal outposts where drugs and child pornography are traded freely.
At least for now.
Memex (the name is a reference to engineer Vannevar Bush's 1945 "As We May Think" essay, which predicted the Internet) is totally subverting the traditional search process in its quest to identify the people responsible for creating and spreading illicit content. To do so, Memex engineers scan the Deep Web for ads that point users to sites where child pornography or other human slavery is on display.
The problem has traditionally been that those ads and images disappear before police can examine them, though Memex will log the ad as well as its source. From there it uses phone numbers and email addresses to follow the poster’s physical location world, slowly logging intelligence and, if all goes well, eventually arresting the suspect.
The program has been the subject of fascination since Sunday, when 60 Minutes broadcast a segment on Memex and Scientific American took a deep dive into the potentially revolutionary investigative technique.
“One of the things Memex does it to take all these sex ads and see who is posting them. Are these people traveling across the country? If someone is traveling all across the country that suggests a traveling ring,” a 60 Minutes producer explained in a 60 Minutes “Overtime” online segment. “What Memex did was take all the 60 million ads and map them. What you get is a visual representation of sex trafficking in America. This is how sex trafficking works.”
Yet stopping human trafficking could only be the beginning for Memex. DARPA suggested on its website that the program could also be used for any number of military, law enforcement or intelligence investigations, possibly even for tracking suspected terrorists who communicate on anonymously on social media and within hidden forums.
“We’re envisioning a new paradigm for search that would tailor indexed content, search results and interface tools to individual users and specific subject areas, and not the other way around,” Chris White, DARPA program manager, said in the website announcement. “By inventing better methods for interacting with and sharing information, we want to improvwe search for everybody and individualize access to information. Ease of use for non-programmers is essential.”