Each device which accesses the internet is allocated a unique number (Internet Protocol or IP address) by its internet service provider (ISP). A record is created each time this IP address accesses a webpage, including the date, time and URL (website address) accessed. These records are stored by the ISP.
ISPs are prohibited from providing this information except in limited circumstances by the Electronic Communications Act 2005 (ECA) and Regulation of Interception and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act 2002 (RICA).
- Consumer information (for example, your name and address) may only be released where required by a court order or any other applicable law.
- Activity information (for example, the IP address used to access a website at a particular date and time) may only be released in terms of a direction from a designated judge. Only certain law enforcement officials can apply for a direction.
The Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) will also protect this information to the extent that it relates to and identifies a specific individual or corporate. However the restrictions on disclosure in the ECA and RICA prevail because they are stricter than the standards in POPI.
Although most internet activities can be traced to their originating IP address and to the registered user of that IP address, obtaining this information from ISPs is only possible by or with the assistance of law enforcement officials. The purpose must be to investigate and prosecute crimes or to protect public or national interests. For example, a computer engineer with alleged links to an international child pornography ring was arrested in January when police raided his home after tracking him through his IP address.
If hackers were to access and disclose the information held by ISPs the consequences could be dangerous, or simply embarrassing for those who may not want their internet activities publicised.
Anonymity on the Dark Net
Originally developed by the U.S. Navy, the Dark Net is a part of the internet that is not accessible by normal search engines and browsers. Websites on the Dark Net are accessed using software which anonymises users’ identities and encrypts information at multiple layers (called ‘onion routing’).
The anonymity appeals to activists, political dissidents and whistle-blowers, particularly in repressive societies. Unfortunately terrorists and criminals use the Dark Net for the same reason. There are numerous virtual markets which facilitate unlawful activities such as child pornography and the sale of drugs, weapons, stolen goods and assassination services.
While activities on the Dark Net are not completely untraceable, policing this part of the internet is a particularly difficult task for law enforcement. Websites are regularly shut down, only to pop up again at a different address. Even the highly-publicised arrest of the Dread Pirate Roberts, who ran the multimillion dollar drugs marketplace Silk Road, is largely attributable to his activities on ordinary social media.