The dark web and managing reputational risk

How much do you know about the dark web?

Until yesterday evening I knew very little other than snippets from media reports linking it to a whole manner of shady dealings and criminal activity that seems a million miles away from the lives most of us lead. However, yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a CIPR event at which Jamie Bartlett, author of The Dark Net, was guest speaker and, as a result, I’m pleased to say I’m slightly more well informed!

It was a fascinating – and eye-opening – hour, during which I was astounded by the realisation that the dark web is, in fact, readily available to any of us with minutes and, what’s more, is a platform that’s completely legal.

The gateway to the dark web is the Tor Browser or ‘Tor Hidden Services’, originally created by the US Naval Intelligence Project. In very simple terms, use of the Tor browser prevents any websites that you visit from determining the source, preventing your IP address from being disclosed. Jamie explained that, while the dark web has caused huge issues in terms of illegal activities such as drug dealing, the sale of credit card details and even ransomware – which are in abundance – it is also a force for good, used by whistleblowers, journalists and political dissidents.

The demand for personal data on the dark web is a concern for PR professionals – since the dark web cannot be ‘stopped’ and demand continues to grow, the increasingly professional marketplaces for stolen data and counterfeit goods will also expand in scale. When companies are subject to data breaches, there is a good chance that the data will be sold on the dark web – creating a concern for PR professionals when dealing with such corporate issues in the future.

Preparation is key – which for some organisations may well mean keeping an eye on the dark web for counterfeit goods or similar threats to a company’s reputation. Speed is crucial – large businesses may begin, in the near future, to employ someone to monitor dark web sites and assess any potential risks.

PR professionals should also remember that it isn’t just businesses working within more ‘sensitive’ sectors that are susceptible to reputational damage as a result of goods and information being peddled on the dark net – at one point £20 Tesco vouchers purchased for £8 were the highest selling item.

Jamie cited the pharmaceutical sector by way of hypothetical example – if a large organisation, such as Astra Zeneca or Pfizer, suspected that its products were being sold on the dark web, he would advise purchasing some items, with the support of the authorities, seeking to very quickly establish whether products are genuine or counterfeit. By doing so, this allows you to make a considered and accurate statement.

In a situation where customer data has been stolen and sold on the dark web, language will be key in any liaison and information provided to the media – Jamie presses the importance of getting this right; being hacked and falling victim to malware are two very different things, a point which must be carefully managed with journalists.

The dark net, as Jamie makes clear, will never be stopped so PR professionals will do well to monitor advancements and carefully assess any potential risks for clients.

Following Jamie’s insightful intro to the workings of the dark net, I’m sure I won’t be the only one getting my hands on a copy of his book, The Dark Net -