Deep Web- Review

Good morning-

Here is a review I wrote about the movie Deep Web.  Again, too wordy and behind the times for the places where I sought publication but perhaps still relevant.  Deals with some of the 4th Amendment violations I’ve discussed in relation to surveillance.

Deep Web- Directed by Alex Winter

The internet you know is only the surface. The internet of Facebook and Amazon comprises only about 1% of the content that exists out there on the web. Go deeper and you find databases, vast stores of information by large companies like NASA that use them to search through reports and scholarly journals. Go deeper and you find intranets, internal networks at corporations, the Army and universities that can only be accessed by systems within the network. Go deeper and you find TOR, a network of secret websites with addresses ending in “.onion” that require special software to access. The purpose of TOR is to keep the users unknown and thus this dark corner of the internet has become a place to sell drugs, hire assassins and communicate in secret.


Mr. Winter’s documentary focuses on the story of Ross Ulbricht, contributor to a .onion website called Silk Road, where users could buy and sell illegal drugs with the ease of shopping on Amazon delivered discreetly by mail. The film portrays purveyors of such activity as ideological agents working to supplant government authority with their own. Writing under the alias “Dread Pirate Roberts,” (DPR) Ulbricht wrote that “Silk Road is a way to get around regulation from the state. The state tries to control every aspect of our lives, not just drugs.” This sounds amoral, yet some sellers refused to sell their products to users who did not appear responsible enough to use their products. TOR users in the film believe that the internet can self-regulate in a paradise of open information. One user made the conscientious statement that “online sales could move the drug market from dangerous back alleys to the safety of living rooms.”

Ulbricht claimed not to be the only user of the DPR alias to control Silk Road’s content. After a drug deal gone bad, someone using the DPR alias, allegedly Ulbricht, ordered an assassination to protect the identity of Silk Road users. For contracting a murder, the FBI became involved and in 2013 Ulbricht was arrested and Silk Road taken down. After a lengthy trial in May 2015 Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison. Although the film does not speak about his guilt the boyish former Eagle Scout seems like an unlikely criminal.

The film focuses on the ambiguous legal status of Ulbricht’s arrest. The means by which the FBI would have tracked Ulbricht down appears in the film as a Fourth Amendment violation- the Orwellian ruling by which evidence that has been illegally obtained must be dismissed. Adam Greenburg, a journalist for Wired Magazine, said “American law enforcement hacked a foreign server, I believe, and they didn’t have a warrant…this could set a lasting precedent for how the Fourth Amendment works in the digital age.” The case against Ulbricht has been used by anarcho-libertarians, the film’s white knights, as a beacon to “radicalize the next generation of cryptographers”, organizations like Anonymous which are invested in protecting user privacy on the web in the hopes of keeping governments and organizations transparent.

Deep Web was released amidst yet unresolved controversies about the freedom of information such as Edward Snowden’s release of NSA activity to The Guardian and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s release of classified military documents to Wikileaks. This film and these cases serve as an exploration of American liberties in the digital age. And it is true, that this tradeoff of privacy and security goes right to the heart of what it means to live in a free country, yet few people seem to be paying attention. Perhaps these controversies and Winter’s exposure of the Ulbricht case will replace the fixation on Second Amendment rights for a new generation of bumper stickers loudly echoing calls to protect one’s privacy. It will require this generation of internet curators and users going still deeper.



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