I have had some excruciating moments as a parent explaining the facts of life and the big world out there to my children, but few of those conversations were as awkward as the one I had recently with a senior Jesuit. He was trying to make sense of the Internet leak of hundreds of explicit photos of a crowd of young celebrity women. The massive invasion of privacy generated so much attention that even folks who aren’t quite sure who Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton are had an idea that something unprecedented had occurred. Now imagine explaining the meaning of “sexting” to a bewildered parent, and you have an inkling of my mortifying exposition.
The how of August’s epic photo hack remains to be determined, though many suspect the cracking of Apple iCloud usernames and passwords may be to blame, but the why of it is not too hard to fathom. The Internet has become only the most recent forum for (mostly) men to view and trade titillating-to-obscene visuals. About 2,500 years ago these same guys would have been exchanging wine amphoras with nude drawings at the market. Today they don’t even have to leave their parents’ basements.
The explicit images apparently stolen from private “cloud” storage servers may have been traded privately among a group of men for weeks, if not months before the existence of this cache of images became widely known and then widely distributed. The episode provided a small glimpse into a little observed world of celebrity cyber-stalkers and hackers who lurk in regions of the Internet most everyday users are little aware of.
But they may have already heard something of this e-substrata at the movies. It has become a staple of spy thrillers or military dramas to offer some nod to the obscure spaces of our parallel cyber-verse—the handsome protagonist, stymied in his action-packed investigation of Russian arms dealers or an Al Qaeda terrorist network, is forced to turn to a nebbishy sidekick who ties together some dangling plot threads with a few well-placed key strokes. He’s scouting for information on the “deep” or the “dark web,” he’ll tell our hero, as if that were all the explanation required.
The rest of us may want to familiarize ourselves with those terms, however.
When we surf the net (do the kids still say that?), we are venturing forth across what is known as the “surface web,” those web pages and sites that are readily searchable by Google, Yahoo or Bing. Those pages are designed to be discovered.
Getting data or information from the “deep web” is a little trickier. It requires “harvesting” data from content that is not linked to the “surface” and is often intended to be private, anything from content pages in development at your favorite media site to your photos of your child’s baptism—even data gathered about you while you were shopping at Amazon.
To the people interested in harvesting information, for purposes both benign and nefarious, it is the motherlode of data. Getting to the material on the deep web often requires more skill and time; sometimes it just requires more dogged effort. The celebrity selfies were apparently hacked not by any elegant code, but by brute force. Hackers gathered information about celebrity targets, publicly available (where else) on the Internet, then ran through hundreds if not thousands of possible username and password combinations to gain entrance to private photo depositories.
Another part of the Internet most users may never wittingly encounter is known as the “dark web” or “darknet.” These are pages or files deliberately inaccessible to link-crawling search engines or other prying e-services. Finding content on the dark web requires users to have some direct foreknowledge of web addresses or private databases that search below-the-surface web content and special encryption protocols intended to lock out the uninitiated. Sound phishy? It is. Within the dark web can be found many of the anonymous Internet travelers who trade in child pornography or stolen credit card numbers, conduct sales of illicit arms or hijacked corporate data and even organize, Hollywood style, communication within a terrorist network.
I could go on. Suffice to say there is a lot more to the Internet than meets the eye. The whole enterprise sometimes seems designed to make the job of modern e-parenting virtually impossible, but familiarizing yourselves with some of these terms and communications concepts should allow you to stay alert to what your children are doing—and learning—online.