Teachers should familiarise themselves with the dark web and discuss it with pupils, a leading internet safety charity has said.
Kathryn Tremlett from the South West Grid for Learning, (SWGL) said teachers needed to learn about the Tor browser which can eventually give access to sites filled with illegal items such as drugs, guns and child pornography, as well as terrorist training manuals.
The browser can be downloaded free of charge and allows people to be anonymous online, by making it extremely difficult to trace searches back to its original computer.
Ms Tremlett said the dark web, developed by US military researchers in the 1990s, has a disproportionate amount of attention and coverage and most children would find it difficult to access.
It is not known how many children in Scotland have been able to get through the technical barriers to access it.
Ms Tremlett, a helpline practitioner at SWGL, which helped found the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, said: “It’s important to know how it works, so having a play yourself is the best way for teachers to find out about it.”
Joss Wright, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, said teachers should have a “frank and open discussion” about the dark web, rather than censoring or banning it.
“The students most likely to use the dark web are the ones who already know all about it.
“As for the students who don’t know about it, I really honestly think that if you tell them about it, they are unlikely to jump through the technical barriers to use it.”
Rick Holland, vice-president of strategy at Dark Shadows, managing organisations’ digital risk, said schools should also run digital workshops for parents.
And Colin Tankard, managing director of cyber-security consultancy Digital Pathways, said schools needed to emphasis the “fear factor”.
He said: “The dark web can be a very dark place. So I don’t think schools and education bodies should steer away from talking about it.
“The ‘fear factor’ should be the trigger for people to say, ‘It might be interesting, but do I really want to go there?’”
Larry Flanagan, EIS teaching union general secretary, said pupils already learn about the challenges of the web.
“Within that there may be appropriate reference to ‘dark web’ danger. But it would be age-appropriate advice accompanied by strong personal safety warnings. It is not something that would be routinely part of lesson planning, other than perhaps an acknowledgement it existed.”
Comment: Sam Shedden
The so-called dark web is appearing in the headlines with ever more frequency, but few understand exactly how it works.
The dark web is a subsection of what is known as the deep web – sites inaccessible via standard search engines, meaning you need to know the exact site address to find it. The brainchild of US military researchers, it was created in the mid-1990s to allow intelligence officials to exchange information anonymously.
They called this system Tor, an abbreviation for “The Onion Router”. If a Tor user wants to visit a website, their computer sends a request to that site just like a normal web browser, but it wraps this request in three layers of encryption, like an onion. This message is then sent through a network of around 8,000 computers which act as a relay, further masking the user’s location and protecting their IP address – the unique marker that identifies every computer.
The anonymity afforded by Tor has helped citizens of countries where internet access is restricted, and served as host to whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden.
But the technology’s dark reputation is not undeserved. The communities found within have garnered a reputation as a hotbed for illegal activity: online drug markets, scams and even child abuse.
The latter has become such a problem it now accounts for around half of all recorded offences. In August, independent think-tank Reform said 12,000 IT experts are needed to give UK police “confidence to patrol an online beat”.