Do you think cybersecurity threats only target highly populated places such as New York City and Washington, D.C.? Think again.

Cyber criminals can strike anyone at any place at any time.

The ease of stealing someone’s credit card information, Social Security number or other personal information becomes less difficult each day, as more information makes its way to online databases and the dark web.

During the next several months, the New College Institute, located at 191 Fayette St. in Martinsville, hopes to educate the public about the dangers – and advantages – of the types of information available online through a free seminar series.

“Nobody’s immune from cyberattack. Every individual, every business, every locality. If you follow the news, there have been several localities, states that have been attacked, mainly with ransomware,” said Karen Jackson, interim executive director at NCI. “It’s one of those things where hiding, putting your head in sand and pretending it’s not something you have to worry about, those days are gone.”

Online criminals don’t take age, gender, race, celebrity status or any other factors into account when attempting to gain a buck. Cybersecurity threats impact everyone from the teenager with an after-school job to reality television stars.

“It doesn’t matter how big you are, how small you are. It’s now a fact of life that you have to address,” Jackson said. “We really wanted to start the conversation, not to be alarmists in any way, but just to begin an awareness campaign.”

In advance of National Cyber Security Awareness Month in October, NCI will host professor Eric Jardine at 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesday to start this series of programs.

As an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech and a research fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation, Jardine first became interested in the dark web and its role as a political tool in repressive regimes.

“I researched this topic and found that high levels of political repression did indeed correlate with use of ‘Tor,’ as a main dark web tool,” Jardine said. “Interestingly, though, low levels of political repression, like what you would find in the U.S., Canada or Europe, also correlated with use of Tor. That sparked my interest in some of the more malicious potential uses of Tor, since high use of the dark web in places where the need to use the technology for political reasons was low seems to suggest other more nefarious aims are at work.”

The Tor Project, a nonprofit founded by a group of computer scientists, is a browser and platform designed to protect anonymity, especially from the dark web, which is a world of encrypted content designed to avoid detection by conventional web browsers.

And long known to be a political tool, the dark web can also be used to sell illegal substances and perform illegal acts. Jardine expressed that the dark web is both a substitute location for some types of crime, like drug deals, but also a complement for others like ransomware attacks.

Although not condoning illegal activity, the dark web does sometimes put the average person going about their everyday business in less danger.

“The dark web’s role as a substitute location for crimes can, paradoxically, make neighborhoods safer,” Jardine said. “If people are buying drugs from the dark web, then the violence that can often surround drug exchanges in the real world can be reduced.”

Unfortunately, the ability to attack individuals through the computer could see an uptick with more access to the dark web. Besides, it’s as simple as downloading a special browser.

“The dark web’s role as a complement for malicious behaviors puts average people more at risk,” Jardine said. “For example, the ability of hackers to host transient ransomware drop sites on Tor hidden services increases the ease with which this form of computer crime can be done.”

Although there’s no way to determine for sure exactly what can be found on the dark web, recent efforts to categorize content revealed that hidden sites consisted of drug deals, child abuse content, fraud, hacker forums and ransomware drop sites, to name a few.

For those hoping to keep their information private, using common sense is a good place to start.

“Things like keeping your password safe, not opening emails when you don’t know who they’re from,” Jackson said. “I used to joke that no matter how much someone believes that there’s a Nigerian prince out there that wants to give them money, he really doesn’t exist. It’s one of those situations where, truly, you can be one click away from a major problem.”

Exploring what can be found on the dark web and how that information can be used, the seminar taking place on Tuesday is geared toward everyone – not just those with a vast knowledge about computers.

“A lot of people don’t realize that there are initiatives, that there are programs, that there are things that you can do and take advantage of to learn more, to be more aware,” Jackson said. “It’s meant to be a 101 type discussion. It goes back to building the awareness, helping aid the understanding and getting people to think of cyber as part of a normal conversation and understand terms like dark web. They can say, ‘Oh, I know what that is,’ instead of, ‘Huh, I wonder what that is?’ It’s really meant for anybody.”

For those curious about the uses and abuses of the dark web, attending the event could likely answer many questions and dispel some rumors.

“The dark web sounds super ominous and technical, but it is not really either. There are a lot of bad things that go on upon the dark web, but the same technologies can also be very useful for human rights activists or journalists in repressive regimes who need to access information, informants or publish content. This duality is the tricky thing with the dark web: it is both good and bad, depending on how people decide to use it,” Jardine said. “It is also not really all that complicated to use.

“All someone needs to do is go to the Tor Project web page, download the browser, and they are then surfing the web anonymously. Such anonymity is really one of the defining features of the dark web. There are more technically complex facets of the system, of course, but at one basic level, use of the dark web is really just a few mouse clicks away from most people.”

Jardine expressed that, for some aspects of the dark web most people don’t need to worry.

“For others, people should practice basic digital hygiene,” Jardine said. “For ransomware, the best steps are be cautious in email – don’t click hyperlinks – patch your software regularly, back up your files regularly, and, because data suggests there is still some honor among thieves, if you are hit with this sort of malware and the price in Bitcoin is reasonable, pay.”

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