It must be sweeps week in Tennessee, because Chattanooga's WTVC pulled out all the stops for a series about why you should be afraid of the internet. "Computer gurus say there is a place they can go to dig up some of the internet's oldest websites," says WTVC's Calvin Sneed, and — wait. What is this story about? "And visit chat rooms you cannot access through a normal Google search." Old websites? Exclusive chat rooms? Co-anchor Kim Chapman steps in to raise the stakes even higher. "Chattanooga police say that part of the internet can also be a crime-ridden place that many people don't even know exists."
Hope you're sitting down, Tennessee, because the internet exists, and your children might be using it. Take it away, WTVC reporter Hannah Lawrence!
"The internet is often compared to an iceberg," Lawrence lies. "Let me show you the parts here." (Lawrence then introduces a series of graphics that, to my untrained eye, likely cost the station somewhere in excess of $80 million.)
"The top represents the information you would get from something like a Google search," Lawrence says. "However you're only seeing a very small percentage of what's out there." And the rest of the percentage? What's in there?
Glad you asked.
Why it's the deep web, of course, and it is dark and full of horrors: "It contains all of the information you can't see without downloading a special browser. It's also where police say a lot of criminals have begun to traffic guns, drugs, and people."
You don't have to be an expert on darknets to enjoy the WTVC piece (and lord knows you won't be one after you watch it.) For nearly eight minutes, the piece wrings its hands over the illegal activity that happens on the seamy underbelly of the internet without making any effort to determine its size, scope, or rate of growth. Instead, it tracks down area web user Jake Padgett and all but turns him in to the police for even venturing onto Tor.
"Jake Padgett says he began to surf the internet at 13 years old," Lawrence intones — before immediately cutting to her subject waving his hands saying "I'm no monster." Indeed, Padgett is eventually revealed to be a "hacktivist," an occupation the reporter memorably describes as "a computer-savvy person who uses the internet anonymously while fighting for justice, especially for those sold into slavery."
But WTVC wouldn't rest its entire investigation on an interview with one Chattanooga internet user — it rests upon two! Enter the anonymous Chattanooga police officer who agrees to appear in the report, but only in shadow, likely so this piece doesn't haunt him for the rest of his life.
At no point does the station mention any actual crimes committed using Tor or Tor Hidden Services, such as the drug running that took place via the Silk Road. Instead, this being TV news, the reporter asks when parents should become suspicious that their children are using Tor. Most obvious, the police officer says, is whenever a child objects to you taking their smartphone and searching it for any evidence that they are using it to traffic humans. "Or being upset their parents are trying to monitor what they're up to," he says.
And no. 2? The use of ephemeral messaging services, which let your child send information about the drug ring they are running inside their bedroom without it sticking around the device for later parental investigation. "If they're using apps such as those, I would definitely be worried about those," says Officer Internet.
There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about darknets, of course, and kids today will get up to just about anything on their laptops. But few reports about Tor manage to be this breathless and underreported at the same time. So take a deep breath and Google search something else tonight, Chattanooga. Sweeps week will be over soon.