(BPT) - Every day, millions of Americans turn to the Internet for news and entertainment and to shop. Over the years, Americans have come to trust the Internet so much, that they regularly share information about their daily lives through social media sites and with online retailers.
But what many may not realize is that within just a few clicks, there's an unregulated digital frontier where people, including criminals, buy and sell illegal drugs, guns and pornography, as well as personal and financial details about ordinary individuals. Fueled by software that conceals the identity of people, and digital currency, it's a world that people can't ignore.
That's one of the takeaways from a new report, 'Digital Economy: Potentials, Perils and Promises' recently released by the Digital Economy Task Force (DETF). Comprised of experts representing law enforcement, the digital economy and government policy, this task force, brought together by Thomson Reuters and the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, explored the risks of the digital economy and the rise of online illegal activity.
Many Americans are familiar with what experts call the Surface Web - the typical retail and company websites, social media pages, blogs and bulletin boards that people routinely visit every day. But underneath the Surface Web is the Deep Web, which consists of networks of content, databases and websites that cannot be reached through common web portals or found by search engines. What makes these networks possible - and untouchable by most Americans - is anonymizing technology that conceals the identity of users.
Within the Deep Web, many websites have become havens of criminal activity such as the trafficking of drugs, guns, humans and child pornography. These illegal sites are known as the Darknet by law enforcement experts. Because people reach these sites anonymously, it makes it very difficult for law enforcement to track the illegal transactions of criminals within the Darknet.
'There's good news and bad news to this story,' says Steve Rubley, managing director of the Government Segment of Thomson Reuters and DETF co-chair. 'All Americans should know that the rise in the global digital economy offers incredible opportunity. For example, in the case of journalists or dissidents in oppressive countries, anonymizing technology and digital currencies enable a safe link to the outside world.
'But, there's also a dark side to the story,' Rubley adds. 'Parents should know that some pretty bad people are trying to entice children to send compromising photos of themselves so they can buy and sell those images with other pedophiles. Parents should know that drug dealers are using the Internet to bring drugs to your front door - just like a traditional online retailer.'
To foster the growth of the positive aspects of the digital economy while confronting illegal activity on the Internet, the DETF recommends that state and federal lawmakers consider policies and action that will increase law enforcement training, foster more cooperation between law enforcement agencies, promote a national dialogue and education about illegal Internet activity, and more.
"There is a difference between privacy and anonymity,' says Ernie Allen, president and CEO of ICMEC and DETF co-chair. 'We simply cannot create an environment in which traffickers and child exploiters can operate on the Internet with no risk of being identified unless they make a mistake."
The best defense to prevent criminals and other unsavory characters from violating your privacy online and potentially exploit youth is to implement all privacy settings on social media sites, never friend people you don't know and never respond to emails and text messages you don't recognize. Thomson Reuters offers some additional tips, which include:
* Parents should work with local law enforcement officials to educate their community about the perils of illegal activity occurring on the Internet, and how local citizens of all ages, can avoid becoming victims of online criminals.
* Local citizens should encourage state and local law enforcement officials to invest in the training needed to detect and investigate illegal activity on the Internet that may harm the citizens they represent.
* Parents should monitor online and mobile use by their young children and watch for messages from people that can't be identified or seem out of the ordinary.
* Parents should speak with their children about Internet use and set clear parameters on acceptable use and appropriate websites that can be visited. Set the family computer in a common area to discourage private use. Use parental controls when appropriate to help block access to inappropriate content.