Amber is a writer, scientist, and advocate for Green Energy.
It is invariably true, an unwritten law of the nature of business, that when one company offers a supposedly breakthrough or brand new service or product, other similar companies are quick to follow with their own knock off version. These companies boast they have the best price, or the best quality, or the best customer service, whatever they can imagine that seemingly puts their product above their competitors so the company can reap the biggest profit. However, in their quest to gain market shares and maintain superiority or remain toe-to-toe with their competitor, many of these companies fail to ask (or simply don't care to ask) one crucial question:
Is this a product really worth selling?
This certainly seems to be the case with 'Dark Web Monitoring,' which to my knowledge first appeared as an Experian service, but was quickly picked up on by other credit reporting and anti-identity theft companies. I guess, though, it doesn't really matter whether or not it is a useful product, as it is the job of advertising companies to get people to buy crap they don't need (just look at almost every single As Seen On TV product ever made) and it often falls on the consumer to determine whether or not a product is worth spending their hard earned cash on. And while on the surface, the advertisements do a superb job at scaring people into thinking Dark Web Monitoring is a product worth purchasing, here's why I'm calling bull crap on their claims, and calling it for it really is, an essentially useless service.
What Is the Dark Web?
Let's face it, if your information is on the dark web, it's probably not your fault, and most likely because an irresponsible corporation got hacked, like Equifax or the Republican National Committee who let the information of millions of voters get stolen. Or perhaps a company simply ... lost your information. You may think I'm joking, but my old employer 'lost' his laptop that may or may not have had my social security number on it.
Even if it isn't your fault that your information is potentially at risk, you are still responsible for taking preventative measures to protect it, and you are responsible for any and all repercussions if your identity is stolen, because heaven forbid a corporation actually take responsibility for anything. You may not know how to protect or monitor your information, and chances are you have no idea what the dark web actually is. So when a company, like Experian, swoops in with an advertisement that says, "We can monitor the dark web for your information for just $9.99 a month," it may seem appealing.
But what exactly is the dark web?
When you and I go on social media, or type a query into Bing, or Google, or whatever search engine you may fancy, the web pages that pop up are what some people call the "surface web." You may have to log in to some of these websites to access the information, but all of these pages are essentially public, meaning anyone with the internet can access them. All surface websites are also indexed, meaning a search engine bot, such as Google's bots, has discovered or crawled, as it's called, over the web page and added it to a folder containing every other public website the bots have crawled over. These sites are cataloged and categorized. When someone searches on Google, these public and indexed websites are what show up in the search results.
The dark web, on the other hand, contains millions upon millions of websites that are not indexed by search engine bots. Unlike the surface web, the dark web requires specialized software to access. However, it is not hard at all to acquire this software. Literally anyone can download a Tor browser and gain access to the dark web. As it is not indexed, it is hard to know exactly how large the dark web really is, but many sources agree that the dark web may in fact actually be bigger than the surface web. (Source: The Daily Dot)
But why is the dark web so attractive and what draws people to it? Two words: total anonymity.
In today's day and age, nothing is totally anonymous. Anytime you go to a web page, the cookies on that web page immediately log your IP address, forever recording your exact location. Search engines can also legally sell your information. For example, if you type in running shoes into a Google search for example, Google can sell your information and the fact that you searched for shoes to any shoe company willing to buy the information. (You can thank Donald and the Republican Party for that, who overturned an Obama era ruling that made it illegal.)
The dark web, on the other hand, does none of these things. For the most part, users of the dark web can browse the internet without giving away any personal information, such as their IP address or location. While the dark web can be used for good, as is the case with whistle blowers, or just by the technologically savvy user who wants to keep their IP address a secret, it is generally used by criminals for a plethora of very disgusting reasons. Millions of websites selling illegal firearms, drugs, people, and yes, even credit card information, do exist, and it is these websites Experian claims to "monitor."
Can Experian and Other Companies Really Monitor the Dark Web?
Experian and other companies that offer a dark web monitoring service would like you to believe that it is 100% possible to completely monitor the entire dark web for your personal information. The real answer is a bit more complicated. Here are the top four reasons why their claims may not be true.
1: If it is possible, how are these companies monitoring the dark web?
It is hard to believe that any company, no matter what kind of technology or software they might possess, could monitor the millions upon millions of uncategorized, unindexed, anonymous websites of the dark web. And in fact, the companies who offer these surfaces do not provide an explanation on how they are doing it.
For example, if you travel deep into the blog on Experian's website, the company states they "monitor the depths of the web to identify activity associated with your identity"using "a variety of data gathering techniques." Well, isn't that vague and devoid of any actual information.
Not once, in any of their commercials or their webpage do they state how they are monitoring the dark web. You could argue that maybe Experian doesn't want to share their technique because they don't want criminals to know how they're doing it.
That may seem like a good arugment, but let's face it, these criminals know they're being watched, and they probably know every single method of how they're being watched already, and they don't care. Experian stating how they monitor the dark web is not going to change their behavior.
Literally, all Experian has to do is add one simple sentence to their ad to make it more believable. Here are some examples. We monitor the dark web by robots, artificial intelligence, a specialized team of people really, really good with computers, or aliens. Literally anything and their commercial would have been 100 times more believable. We get none of that. Instead, somewhere deep in their blog you can find the information that Experian "searches through thousands of websites and millions of data points using a variety of data gathering techniques." What does that even mean?
Who freaking knows.
2: What is their definition of the dark web?
This is a ruse often used by con men, advertisement companies, and politicians alike that you should always be on the look out for. What does Experian consider the dark web? I know what I consider the dark web, and you know what you consider the dark web, but what does Experian consider the dark web?
Who knows? They don't say it, and they don't provide a definition. They just use the incredibly broad term of "dark web" and let the consumer fill in the blanks for them. Their definition could mean literally anything. Maybe they monitor those incredibly annoying websites that act like online phone books and include your phone number, address, name, and relatives. Those websites are as creepy as the dark web (seriously how did they get my address and phone number?), but by my definition are not part of the dark web. They are, in fact, public and indexed and nobody is buying and selling your credit information on those sites. But is Experian counting them as the dark web? Is that what they mean by monitoring the dark web?
Experian does tell us (again deep in their blog) that they monitor "web pages, blogs, bulletin boards, peer-to-peer sharing networks, forums and chat rooms, social media feeds, and web services." However, what they fail to mention is that the majority of those pages monitored that I just mentioned? Yeah, those are on the surface web, and not in fact the dark web.
Nice try, Experian.
3: Is it even possible to monitor the dark web?
Ah, the golden question. Can the dark web even be monitored? Possibly, if you've got an actual human being on the inside of these criminal organizations and not simply an algorithm that scans them and that could easily be thwarted by tech savvy criminals. The authorities have successfully taken down criminals on the dark web before, so that is proof it is possible. For example, in 2013 the FBI took down the infamous Silk Road website, which sold illegal drugs.
Even the authorities have trouble taking down criminals on the dark web, though, and it takes a ton of time and resources. Ah, but, you may be thinking, Experian isn't trying to take down criminals, they're just checking to see if your information is there. Good point. However, due to the very nature of the dark web, i.e. it's mostly criminal nature, websites are constantly going to be abandoned or deleted to avoid detection and new ones created. That means websites are continuously becoming obsolete and new ones continuously created in its place. Once a criminal website becomes aware that Experian or an other monitoring service is onto them, you can bet that dark website is going to quickly disappear and somewhere on the deep, dark underbelly of the internet, another website is going to pop up that these monitoring services will have no idea exists. It would be impossible to monitor all those websites even if one wanted to. Are Dark Web Surveillance services advanced enough to keep up with this transient nature of the underbelly of the internet? I cannot tell for you sure, but in my opinion, it's simply not possible.
4: What use is it?
Assuming for a moment that all of Experian and the other companies claims are true, what possible use could it possibly serve you? Let me explain. Say Experian, for example, finds your information in a chat room, then they alert you about it. Then what? I don't know. Do you know?
At this point, your information has already been sold and there is nothing the user nor the company they pay to monitor the dark web can do about it. So now that your information has been detected, and possibly sold, are these companies going to do anything about it? Depends on the product you bought. Generally, it's not the company's problem, and usually not offered as part of the service. Some companies don't offer resolution services, and some do offer resolution packages. However, it will cost more per month for the added service. So in most cases, even if the company does find your information on the dark web, it's kind of a pointless service because there's nothing you can do about it, and there's nothing they do about it.
In summary, in most cases these monitoring services may have potentially found your information on a criminal website, but they don't prevent the information from being sold, and they don't help the consumer fix the problem if their identity is sold on the black market.
So ... what is the point of this service exactly?
Yeah, I don't know the answer to that either.
However, there are ways one can protect themselves from identity theft that don't include purchasing questionable dark web monitoring services.
What Can You Use Instead to Keep an Eye on Identity Theft?
At this point, you may be thinking, whether or not these credit monitoring and anti-identity theft companies monitor the dark web, they still offer other identity protection services, such as credit monitoring and keeping an eye on one's credit score. Both those things are, in fact, useful for protecting you from identity theft. However, you can get both of those services FOR FREE through other companies, such as Credit Karma. If you want a company that both monitors your credit AND will work to fix the problem for you if your information is ever stolen, then try a company like LifeLock.
I'm not saying Experian and other companies do not monitor the dark web. They may very well do so. However, it it impossible to tell for sure from their commercials and the information available on their websites whether their claims are true or not. Even if it is true, their Dark Web Surveillance serves no purpose whatsoever if they can't fix the problem. It's like your doctor telling you that your arm is broken and then not putting a cast on it. So in my opinion, do you really want to spend $10 a month on a service you can't even be sure will work? Probably not. You're better off throwing that $10 into a wishing well and hoping no one steals your information.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.