As data breaches have shown in recent years, the dark web can be
utilized as a means to hack into organizations, compromising
millions of people’s information. Often, the compromised
information is in turn sold for illicit purposes on the dark web.
Organizations must therefore be aware of the dark web threats and,
importantly, ensure that they have effective policies and
safeguards to prevent or respond to the risks of the dark web. This
is especially important at a time when Canadians are becoming
increasingly concerned about their privacy
The Three Layers of the Web
The web is divided into three layers: the surface web, the deep
web, and the dark web. Most of us are familiar with the surface
web, which consists of websites indexed by commercial search
engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo, Bing) that are
easily accessible. The deep web refers to content that cannot be
easily accessed, as it is not indexed by commercial search engines.
The deep web contains content like a person’s banking or
medical information. The dark web, unlike the surface web and the
deep web, requires specialized software where users often operate
in total anonymity. The dark web is described below in more
Defining the Dark Web
The dark web is made up of dark nets, which are highly
encrypted, non-indexed websites that cannot be accessed without
special software, such as Tor. Tor, which is an abbreviation for
“The Onion Router,” is the primary software users rely on
to access the dark web.
At its most basic, Tor sends a user’s data through a series
of computers—referred to as “nodes”— that are
run by volunteer dark web users around the globe, making user IP
addresses untraceable. In other words, Tor routes and encrypts user
traffic through multiple servers, thereby enhancing user
Tor looks similar to a typical browser, but instead of using
typical suffices like “.com” or “.ca,” Tor
users use “.onion” to access its websites. Generally,
since websites on the dark web are not indexed, users seeking to
access dark web websites are required to know the precise
“.onion” URL. However, unsophisticated dark web users
often rely on “Hidden Wiki” websites—accessible
through commercial search engines—that contain links to dark
Dangers of the Dark Web
Dark web users generally include people with privacy concerns,
people engaging in illegal activity, law enforcement and the
government, and activists. Thus, given its anonymity, the dark web
can serve as an important space for, among others, political
dissidents and whistleblowers—at least in theory.
The dark web can also be a haven for illicit activity. Users can
trade, among other things, contraband (e.g.,
opioids, weapons, body arts, etc.), as well as information
pertaining to personal records (e.g., medical
records, social security numbers, etc.) and accounts
(e.g., e-mail accounts, bank accounts, etc.).
In particular, there are numerous privacy concerns that the dark
web presents not only to its users, but also to large
organizations. Organizations collect volumes of personal
information, making them desirable targets for cyberattacks, as
illustrated by recent cyberattacks, exposing the personal
information of millions of people.
Organizations’ Responsibilities under Privacy
Organizations have numerous privacy obligations under various
statutory and regulatory regimes to keep personal information safe.
Failure to comply can lead to significant consequences to
organizations, including penalties under the applicable legislation
and more broadly, reputational harm.
The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents
Act (“PIPEDA“) is the
federal law that applies to private-sector organizations across
Canada that collect, use or disclose personal information in the
course of a commercial activity. Personal information includes any
factual or subjective information, recorded or not, about an
identifiable individual. This includes information such as age,
name, identification numbers, ethnic origin, blood type, employee
files, credit records, etc. Certain provinces have their own
private-sector privacy laws that have been deemed substantially
similar to PIPEDA.
Organizations subject to PIPEDA must follow the ten
fair information principles to protect personal information. The
principles form the ground rules for the collection, use, and
disclosure of personal information. In turn, organizations must
implement appropriate mechanisms and practices to avoid data
breaches enabled by, among other things, the dark web.
- Accountability: An organization is responsible
for personal information under its control. It must appoint someone
to be accountable for its compliance with these fair information
- Identifying Purposes: The purposes for which
the personal information is being collected must be identified by
the organization before or at the time of collection.
- Consent: The knowledge and consent of the
individual are required for the collection, use, or disclosure of
personal information, except where inappropriate.
- Limiting Collection: The collection of
personal information must be limited to that which is needed for
the purposes identified by the organization. Information must be
collected by fair and lawful means.
- Limiting Use, Disclosure, and Retention:
Unless the individual consents otherwise or it is required by law,
personal information can only be used or disclosed for the purposes
for which it was collected. Personal information must only be kept
as long as required to serve those purposes.
- Accuracy: Personal information must be as
accurate, complete, and up-to-date as possible in order to properly
satisfy the purposes for which it is to be used.
- Safeguards: Personal information must be
protected by appropriate security relative to the sensitivity of
- Openness: An organization must make detailed
information about its policies and practices relating to the
management of personal information publicly and readily
- Individual Access: Upon request, an individual
must be informed of the existence, use, and disclosure of their
personal information and be given access to that information. An
individual shall be able to challenge the accuracy and completeness
of the information and have it amended as appropriate.
- Challenging Compliance: An individual shall be
able to challenge an organization’s compliance with the above
principles. Their challenge should be addressed to the person
accountable for the organization’s compliance with PIPEDA,
usually their Chief Privacy Officer.
The Privacy Act is the federal legislation that governs
the federal government’s use, disclosure, retention or disposal
of personal information in the course of providing services. Like
PIPEDA, the Privacy Act also sets out various
responsibilities that government institutions must follow to
protect personal information.
Tips for Organizations
Organizations should have security measures in place to not only
prevent possible data breaches, but also ensure, if a breach does
occur, to respond quickly and effectively. What follows is a
discussion of the various tips organizations should consider in
seeking to avoid the threats of the dark web.
- Keeping Information off the Dark
One of the concerns for organizations, as illustrated by recent
cyberattacks, is that personal information may end up in the dark
web and, consequently, be used for illicit purposes. Therefore, as
a precautionary measure, organizations should ensure that its data
does not end up on the dark web. To prevent this from occurring, an
organization and its members should, among other things, seek
- enable multi-factor authentication;
- install malware/antivirus software;
- use the appropriate software when accessing the dark
- store data locally on encrypted drives; and
- be aware of social engineering techniques.
- Contracting with Third Parties
When contracting with third parties, an organization should
review its own privacy protection clauses to ensure that they are
as rigid as those within third-party contracts. In addition, the
organization should ensure that it fulfills any external security
measures required by the contract.
- Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
In 2018, the OPC recommended cybersecurity remedial measures
that organizations can take to protect their customer’s
personal information. The OPC recommendations came after a toy
manufacturer experienced a data breach that compromised the
personal information of over 500,000 people. The OPC approved of
the following remedial measures performed by the toy
- Testing/Maintenance: Establish (i) a regular,
multifaceted testing protocol to identify potential system
vulnerabilities; and (ii) an update/patch management program to
mitigate the risk of known vulnerabilities.
- Administrative Access Controls: Take steps to
limit the number of individuals with administrative access, and
limit the scope of access available via individual accounts
(g., to limit cross-network access of local
administrators)… Strengthen authentication controls
(e.g., strong passwords) and put in place organizational
measures to more strictly control the use of administrative
- Cryptography: Implement enhanced cryptography
for stored information, as well as encryption for user information
in transit via websites and apps.
- Logging and Monitoring: Establish increased
and centralized log event retention to assist with detecting and
investigating unauthorized activities on its network. Also restrict
and monitor outgoing traffic to the internet.
- Security Management Framework: Implement a new
comprehensive data security policy, which provides for the creation
of a Data Security Governance Board to ensure, among other things:
(i) staff awareness via annual training regarding the policy and
data security; (ii) policy compliance; and (iii) annual risk
assessments, best-practice benchmarking and reviews so that the
policy and associated data security measures remain adequate.
Canadians are increasingly becoming more concerned about their
privacy. Although the dark web serves as an important space for
privacy, the dark web also presents various privacy concerns to
both users and in particular, to organizations. As organizations
collect significant personal information about their customers or
clients, they should not only be aware of how the dark web may
enable data breaches, but also be prepared to avoid such risks by
implementing appropriate security policies and practices.
1 Often, organizations may be required to access
the dark web for brand management purposes to determine and monitor
whether any harmful information about the organization is being
shared, including personal information, related to organizational
members or clients. However, while an organization may use Tor to
access the dark web, organizations must be aware that Tor does not
protect all internet traffic, as it only protects those
applications that are properly configured to send their traffic
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.