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Is there a dark side of academia's Internet?

Roger Atkinson

The phrase, or sometimes a catchy headline, 'dark side of the Internet', has become better known in recent months, though it originated over a decade ago. Recently we have seen Australian media headlines such as 'Medicare card numbers being sold on dark web'[1]; 'AlphaBay: Global authorities shut down dark net market'[2,3]; 'Dark net like a shopping mall for drugs'[4]; and 'A walk on the dark side of the internet'[5]. Hence my concern about whether there is a 'dark side' to academia's use of the Internet, and who may be 'lurking' in there (to borrow a term from discourses about online discussion groups). Part of this concern is a resentment about very bad users of the Internet, as 'various characters use the Dark Web to perform nefarious activities and sell illegal products' [including] 'black markets, botnets, terrorists, hoaxers, hackers, fraudsters, phishing, hitmen and pornography'[6]. The great technologies and services associated with the Internet should not be sullied by Dark Web players, but, sadly, it is happening.

However, here the main concern is identifying activities that could constitute a 'dark side' to teaching, learning and research use of the Internet. One 'dark side' matter, already well known and addressed by corrective measures, is plagiarism. These days academic integrity advice is universally available on Australian university websites, and most or nearly all are using the plagiarism detection software, Turnitin[7]. Therefore for this musing I want to explore more recently emerged concerns, most notably the topics of spying and cybersecurity. These topics have captured attention, as expressed vividly and recently in Australian media headlines such as 'Cyber security "the new frontier of warfare, espionage", Malcolm Turnbull says'[8]; 'Cyber warfare unit set to be launched by Australian Defence Forces'[9]; and 'Cybersecurity skills shortage putting public, private sectors at risk, experts say'[10].

At this point a reader could interject with the thought, 'Hang on, are you implying that our governments and corporations are somehow becoming "Dark Web players", along with the well-known baddies?' Not so, the question in my mind is about dividing lines between 'dark side' and the 'good side', are these clear cut or fuzzy? What kinds of evidence, anecdotal or better in quality, should we be looking for? Are academic freedoms under threat as nations equip with 'Weapons of Mass Surveillance', to quote the title of a recent ABC Four Corners program?[11]

One kind of evidence is anecdotal, but is has been in my mind during many years of journal editorial work. Why are free email services, especially gmail, yahoo and hotmail/ [12] so widely used by university researchers in many countries, instead of using their university email address? By contrast, Australian university researchers almost invariably use their university's email address, as an identifier to be used with pride. In earlier times my guess was that reliability of email server was the key factor, that is, one's own university could not offer a reliable and easy to use service. However, now my guess is that the key factor could be reducing the possibility of surveillence by one's university or government. I use the word 'guess', because it would be tactless to seek evidence by asking prospective authors of a journal article about reasons for emailing from instead of (best to refrain from giving illustrative examples of country domain .yy).

Ironically, recent disclosures have drawn renewed attention to surveillance or potential surveillance of email to and from gmail, yahoo and hotmail/ customers. The authors of media headlines are having a ball: 'Yahoo secretly scanned customer emails for US intelligence agencies'[13]; 'What Yahoo's NSA surveillance means for email privacy'[14]; 'Campaigners ask US court to reveal extent of spying by Five Eyes Alliance' [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, USA][15]; and 'When is 'not a backdoor' just a backdoor? Australia's struggle with encryption'[16]. That's tough on users of, who may have to reconsider Whose surveillance is potentially the lesser of two evils?

A recent BBC documentary broadcast by ABC Four Corners drew attention to 'the international cyber arms trade giving governments the tools to spy on their citizens' [11]:

Weapons of Mass Surveillance...
"It used to be 'walls have ears', now it's 'smartphones have ears'". Activist

The digital age has revolutionised the way we live our lives, giving us the tools to connect with people and share information in ways that would have previously been impossible. But this same technology has also given governments the ability to spy on their citizens on an astonishing scale.
"Every country willing to write a pay check to the right party can do this sort of surveillance but no one wants to admit it." Cyber security specialist
Cyber surveillance technology enables governments to collect, catalogue and analyse the communications of millions of people.
"You'd be able to intercept any internet traffic. If you wanted to do a whole country, go ahead." Former cyber security employee
There are some more positive appreciations of the contempory scene, for example from Rebecca MacKinnon at Davos 2017[17]:
A small number of some of the world's biggest internet and telecommunications companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Vodafone and Orange, have started to carry out human rights impact assessments that include an examination of how their products and services affect users' freedom of expression and privacy.
Conerns about US intelligence agencies imposing surveillance upon gmail, yahoo and hotmail/ appear to be sufficiently strong so that competitor services can feature these concerns in their advertising for customers, for example from ProtonMail [18]:
How does this impact ProtonMail?
ProtonMail's secure email service is based in Switzerland and all our servers are located in Switzerland, so all user data is maintained under the protection of Swiss privacy laws. ProtonMail cannot be compelled to perform mass surveillance on our users, nor be compelled to act on behalf of US intelligence. ProtonMail also utilizes end-to-end encryption which means we do not have the capability to read user emails in the first place, so we couldn't hand over user email data even if we wanted to.
However, since email is an open system, any unencrypted email that goes out of ProtonMail, to Yahoo Mail for example, could potentially have been swept up by these mass surveillance programs and sent to US government agencies. This is why if you want to avoid having your communications scanned and saved by US government agencies, it is important to invite friends, family, and colleagues to use non-US email accounts such as ProtonMail or other email services offered by European companies.
The advertising pitch from ProtonMail is unlikely to be of interest in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, which enjoy deeply embedded traditions of academic freedom and privacy in communications. For example, I have no concerns about my email communications with 'country domain .yy' (other than the problem of journal submissions increasing 25-30% per year). However, the perspective may be quite different for or, where use of 'Weapons of Mass Surveillance' [11] may be well established, with progressive academics as key targets.

Another indicator about concerns over spying, cybersecurity and the dark web may be gleaned from university advertising of new courses. One I liked was from Endicott College, USA[19]:

CMM 432 - The Dark Side of the Internet
The internet and world wide web have dramatically changed the way we now live our lives. Many pundits, academics, and "regular-folks" extol the virtues of the digital domain. There is a dark side to the internet that many critics and theorists are now starting to discuss. Students in this class will explore, from an academic perspective, issues such as privacy, social media anxiety, data collection, and panopticon control to better understand the negative consequences of living life online.
For an Australian example, I liked La Trobe University's online distance education course [20]:
Master of Cybersecurity (Computer Science)
Designed in collaboration with our industry partners, [the] Master of Cybersecurity ... is geared to keep pace with the information security demands of business, government, defence and law enforcement. ... ... subjects will cover fundamentals of cybersecurity, core knowledge in communication networks, crisis communication, the mindset and motives of hackers, auditing and risk mitigation, as well as legal and ethical frameworks.
The two examples above illustrate a 'brighter side' arising from the 'dark side', namely universities identifying important new topics for advanced teaching and learning, and developing them quickly. The two examples show contrasting perspectives, one from the social sciences, one from computer sciences, thereby underscoring the need for multidisciplinary approaches to these topics. Perhaps they are also examples of being 'agile' and 'innovative'!


  1. Norman, J. & Henry Belot, H. (2017). Medicare card numbers 'being sold on dark web', Alan Tudge calls for AFP to investigate. ABC News, 4 July.
  2. ABC News (2017). AlphaBay: Global authorities shut down dark net market 10 times the size of 2013's Silk Road. 21 July.
  3. Viney, S. (2017). What is the dark net, and how will it shape the future of the digital age? ABC News, 21 July.
  4. Pigram, S. (2017). Dark net like a shopping mall for drugs, convicted Tasmanian man says. ABC News, 6 July.
  5. Williams, C. (2016). A walk on the dark side of the internet. The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March.
  6. Routley, N. (2017). The dark side of the Internet. Visual Capitalist, 8 July.
  7. Australian College of Applied Psychology (n.d.). Q. Who uses Turnitin?
  8. Belot, H. (2017). Cyber security 'the new frontier of warfare, espionage', Malcolm Turnbull says.
  9. McGhee, A. (2017). Cyber warfare unit set to be launched by Australian Defence Forces. ABC News, 30 June.
  10. Lewis, D. (2017). Cybersecurity skills shortage putting public, private sectors at risk, experts say. ABC News, 13 June.
  11. ABC Four Corners ((2017). Weapons of mass surveillance. Four Corners, 27 July.
  12.;; (successor to Hotmail)
  13. ABC News (2016). Yahoo secretly scanned customer emails for US intelligence agencies.
  14. Yen, A. (2016). What Yahoo's NSA surveillance means for email privacy. ProtonMail blog, 6 October.
  15. Sayer, P. (2017). Campaigners ask US court to reveal extent of spying by Five Eyes Alliance. CIO (IDG News Service), 8 July.
  16. ABC News (2017). When is 'not a backdoor' just a backdoor? Australia's struggle with encryption. ABC News, 14 July.
  17. MacKinnon, R. (2017). The internet has a dark side. We need a plan for taming it. Davos 2017, World Economic Forum.
  18. ProtonMail.
  19. CMM 432 - The Dark Side of the Internet, Endicott College, USA.
  20. Master of Cybersecurity (Computer Science), La Trobe University.
Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University in June 2001. His current activities include honorary work on the TL Forum conference series, Issues in Educational Research, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. Website (including this article in html format):

Note: The version presented here is longer than the print published version, as it includes references that were omitted for space constraint reasons.

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2017). Is there a dark side of academia's Internet? HERDSA News, 39(2).

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Created 6 Oct 2017. Last correction: 3 Jan 2018. HTML author: Roger Atkinson []
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