The central intelligence agency (CIA), headquartered in Langley, Virginia, is the federal organization charged with gathering, analyzing and processing of information in and around US for security purpose. Agents and spies all around the world gather intel and report it either to an officer or transmit it directly to the agency’s network.
Analysts then apply a sequence of formulae to the gathered information, rule down uncertainties, link events and make raw data comprehendible. Depending upon how crucial the information is the security advisor may choose to debrief or omit the information from the President’s daily report.
Now, the CIA operates its network not through the internet but a similar system that began as ARPANET – the mother of today’s internet. Given the importance of information that is transmitted through the spies, intelligence agency will not let security hang loose by transmitting data through the common people’s network.
While Google’s library seems very vast, it only contributes to less than 4% of the entire web. In fact, in his entire life a person will only come across 0.05% of the internet. There are websites, networks beyond the ones we see on Google – that cannot be accessed via the open network. Search engines are not capable of caching the content and so Google searching ‘deep web’ will land you almost nowhere.
Anything that cannot be cached comprises either the deep or dark web. Not everything in the deep web is illicit, and the contents can be accessed through a direct URL or a redirecting link. Examples include internet banking, content-on-demand, etc. The spookier things that go around on the internet happens in the dark web that only select browsers can access. Dark web can neither be cached nor discovered via public internet, making it the ideal platform for intelligence agencies, and also terrorists to operate history-changing tasks. Terrorist organizations like ISIS, AL-Qaeda have been known to have their own web address. There are reports that the 9/11 attack might have been planned and executed through the internet and in total anonymity. Operation Neptune Spear, in which the US military infiltrated Pakistan (Abbottabad) and shot the world’s most-wanted man could also have been streamed live to the White House using satellites and CIA’s own dark web.
The United States, being the home soil for companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, is undoubtedly the global IT hub. Notwithstanding that the CIA has been accused of espionage several times before, tech-giants in the US have long focused in provisioning native data centers. This has perhaps got the Russian president worried. A former KGB agent himself, Vladimir Putin says he discovered during his days in the organization how the internet was built to aid the CIA in reconnaissance missions.
TOR, or The Onion Router, is a program that bounces back encrypted data packets across several computers before data arrives at its destination, CIA’s official website says.
The Intelligence agency went on to release its official onion site to encourage anonymous and safe contribution of intelligence throughout. Despite CIA’s claim that its presence in TOR (link below) is to promote privacy, experts do not rule out the underlying intent of connecting to operatives around the world.
For an agency like CIA to be present in onion network, and along with the bad guys whom they claim to be fighting against, is not new. India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) has been known to operate through dark web only, given that there is no trace of its existence online even though a big part of India’s defence budget goes to ‘RAW’.
In June 2018, a 15-year old hacked CIA chief’s email account and gained access to files from operations in Iran. For weeks, Kane tapped the chief’s email conversations. However, things took a turn when he encountered a neighbouring web network, possibly CIA’s, and tried to sneak in. It was then that the firewall discovered his presence and Kane was caught.
Despite having the entire network access, Kane could only uncover files from operations in Iran and Afghanistan. According to Gamble, there were no other files in the network he broke into. The more important files were either moved to an underlying deeper web or were hosted in a separate server, Kane told investigators.
In a more recent breakout, a double agent working for both Iran and the US showed Iranian officials the website that CIA was using as cover to gain intelligence about the country’s nuclear program. Iran then deployed its cyber experts to monitor and crack CIA comms network, tracked downed 30 moles and executed them. For once the agency would have gone undetected but it was operating the entire surveillance from a single network, made only to direct comms to its agents. This got Iran more suspicious of the unwanted American presence in its land.
If an organization like the CIA wants to use the internet, it has to do so in absolute secrecy, camouflaged from the network of people. It is not that the cool and smart guys only work for American agencies. There are people smarter and obviously slier than their American counterparts and Kane Gamble is one such example. Operating multiple networks on dark web might seem like witchcraft, but here we are talking about organizations that have defence budget in billions. Safekeeping data in one place renders it more vulnerable for malign intents. The US seems to have adopted an ideology to sandbox communications for a particular mission. In any case where the system of spies gets ensnared, other missions can continue to thrive independently without risks, the way they have continued to operate despite being scythed numerous times.