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Hackers, Cypherpunks and Cyber-Subversion

Hackers, Cypherpunks and Cyber-Subversion

Deep Web: Welcome to the age of the Dark Leviathan

Alex Winter’s new film, “Deep Web”, looks at the internet’s ugly underbelly and examines the perils and paradoxes of our digital age.Beneath the ogling eyes of Google, Bing, and Baidu exists an immense cyber-sea—by some measures several orders of magnitude bigger and more boisterous than the surface web. This so-called “deep web” is both benign and malignant—a thicket of databases, admin code, non-indexed content, and obscure URLs, but also home to an anarchic digital commons and rapacious commercial underworld, dubbed the “dark net,” where drugs and weapons are traded without sanction and dirt-merchants, mercenaries, and MDMA dealers transact with impunity.

Enter Alex Winter, the totally excellent co-star of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and top dog documentarian (he made Downloaded a few years back, a film that chronicled the rise and fall of rogue file-sharing site Napster) who just debuted his latest doc “Deep Web,” which aired last night on the Epix Channel. The 90-minute documentary, narrated by none other than Keanu Reeves, is an amazing deep dive into the interweb’s dark underbelly—your one-stop shop for Oxycodone, fake insurance cards, assassins, sniper scopes, creepy snuff-films, and anything else your freaky deaky heart desires. Winter’s film pushes an unabashedly Orwellian polemic with a focus on entrepreneur-cum-digital-desperado Ross Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, the mastermind behind the subversive Silk Road black market bazaar (the “ of crypto-commerce”) who was just sentenced to life in jail last Friday for cyber-hacking, money laundering, hawking stolen credit cards and dealing heroin.

This documentary is excellent because it masterfully maps out the Deep Web and explores relevant themes like technological change, Fourth Amendment rights, government intervention and interesting ideological strands of ‘anarcho-libertarianism’ and laissez-faire capitalism. In particular, Winter provides a glimpse into the exotic e-depths, onion routers and ultra-encrypted web apps like PGP and Tor (software that anonymizes your IP address, often used by whiz-kid coders, whistleblowers, journalists and jihadists) and the crypto-currency Bitcoin, the favored medium of exchange used by dark net denizens (never mind those Winklevoss Twins) to buy and sell contraband. The film explores the underlying issues around online privacy and of illegal search and seizure in the digital age, and whether or not it’s totally legit or bogus of the feds to hack servers without a warrant (Neo from The Matrix provides an ace narration!)

In the end it’s difficult to digest Winter’s narrative and not walk away paranoid over how our texts, emails, social media and meta-data, hosted somewhere in ‘the cloud’, could be used against us by ‘digital tyrants’, Big Brother and virtual villains. The movie also traces the roots of digital libertarianism to the naughties Cypherpunks—a Bay Area group of math geeks, programmers and crypto-anarchists dedicated to individual liberty, anonymity and personal privacy (think Eric Hughes, Tim May, Anonymous, etc.) and poses the question of whether or not we are ushering in the digital dystopia that rabble-rousers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have warned against. Welcome to the age of the Dark Leviathan!

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