EDWARD LUCAS: Our children’s minds are being damaged forever by the barbaric horrors they find on the Dark Web. Brianna Ghey’s killer Scarlett Jenkinson began to explore it at 13…by 15 she was a merciless killer
For any parent or grandparent, being aware of what your teenager is doing on the internet is now as essential to their safety as knowing whether they are drinking alcohol or using drugs.
As a cyber security expert – who is also a parent – I would argue that this is even more important. The twisted websites that any computer literate teenager can access via a phone, tablet or laptop are capable of leaving lifelong mental scars.
Even worse are the layers of perversion and gore on the Dark Web. For an older and more sheltered generation, it is beyond our wildest imagination. It was these that Brianna Ghey’s killer Scarlett Jenkinson began to explore at the age of just 13, as she spiraled into drug abuse and murderous fantasies.
Not all teenagers, however, who experience these horrors will try to act out what they see. But what they encounter can never be unseen. They risk lasting damage to their mental health, with their emotions tainted by images that can haunt them forever.
During a long career in journalism, I have seen some desperately unpleasant things. Few were worse than the site I was able to find and access within ten minutes after downloading an anonymous Dark Web browser to my home computer last week.
For obvious reasons I won’t mention the site. It offered an alphabetical guide of the most virulent pornography, from A for amputees to Z for zombies: images of violent sex involving seemingly helpless, legless and armless people, followed by similar images of skeletal anorexia sufferers – and that was just under A. This is not even the worst of what can be found on these sites.
A family portrait of Scarlett Jenkinson with her parents shows a seemingly well-adjusted young girl – just a few years before she developed a fascination with murder
By the time Jenkinson was a teenager, she was looking for raunchy material on the Dark Web
Jenkinson boasted to her co-murderer, Eddie Ratcliffe: ‘I like watching torture videos. Rights on the Dark Web.’
Because Dark Web activity is untraceable, it’s impossible to know what Jenkinson saw. But it is believed she managed to gain access to a ‘red room’ – a website with videos, either live streamed or pre-recorded, of barbaric bloodshed. This can include cannibalism, dissection and murder.
Despite widespread rumors that these sites exist, few people have been prosecuted in connection with them. Some skeptics dismiss this as an ‘urban myth’ and suggest that videos showing torture or murder, for example, can be faked using special effects.
Digital fraud is one possibility, true, but in the poorest places in the world, such as parts of India and the Philippines, lives of street children and homeless adults are treated as almost worthless. It would be cheaper to kill someone and film it than to fake it. Child abuse, live on camera, perpetrated on unknown victims by anonymous perpetrators, has been a target for detectives for decades.
It is horrifying to think what damage these videos can do to an innocent and unformed psyche, just as it is horrifying to know that the people depicted were almost certainly forced into sexual activity by poverty, coercion or deception.
Since the early days of the Internet, such sites have existed, catering to adults with depraved, criminal urges. Often the people producing these images, as well as their clients, ran the risk of detection and arrest, given away by their own stupidity and lack of internet skills. They used credit cards, registered websites in their own names or did not realize that cyber specialists could recognize the fingerprint of an individual computer.
Jenkinson boasted of accessing the Dark Web to watch actual murders
Eddie Ratcliffe was sent an advertisement for a website which claimed to show footage of people being tortured
As celebrities, like Gary Glitter, we read about them. Others faced humiliation and the loathing of their families or employers. This is no longer the case.
The browser I used is effectively foolproof. Anyone with a computer or smartphone can download it. It leaves no trace, enforces total anonymity. There is no search engine. Instead, each page has an address of random numbers and letters, like a password.
Reaching that site involves knowing where to look — information shared among friends, via social media or in Internet chat rooms.
Scarlett Jenkinson sent Ratcliffe an ad for a website claiming to show footage of people being tortured, maimed and killed. When an address is entered, a simple mouse click initiates a complex chain of events.
Your request is pinged between relay stations, each enveloping your identity in a layer of impenetrable disguise. This is the ‘onion’ principle. The technical details are complicated, but the key point is simple: there is no good reason for anyone in the UK to use this software – just a bunch of bad reasons.
If you find a browser called Tor on your teen’s device, demand an explanation. What do they use it for? Who told them to download it? Don’t be swayed by vague claims that ‘it’s more private’ or ‘there are fewer ads’.
The paradox is that this instrument of misery was conceived with the best of intentions.
The Tor browser, with its secure access to the Dark Web, was designed not to enable the trafficking of pornography and drugs – nor its many other grim uses, such as anorexia cult sites where girls are encouraged to kill themselves hunger, or forums where assassins allegedly sell their deadly services.
Brianna Ghey unwittingly walked into a trap set by her killers, who became obsessed with committing a heinous act of violence
‘Defend yourself against detection and surveillance. Bypass censorship,’ proclaims the site, where the browser can be downloaded for free in seconds.
The software was developed with grants from the Pentagon to give people living under oppression and dictatorship, for example in China, North Korea, Iran or Russia, a way to access news from the West.
The BBC maintains a mirror of its own site on the Dark Web, providing reliable journalism to users whose lives depend on the secrecy it provides. Even Beijing’s secret police cannot detect Dark Web activity by its individual citizens.
But as with the wider Internet, these optimistic beginnings were soon corrupted. Just as no one foresaw social media could be used to undermine democratic elections with conspiracy theories, the potential for organized crime and extreme pornography only emerged later. It has mushroomed into a multi-million pound criminal market that threatens security and our mental health.
Payment for these services is in untraceable digital currency such as bitcoin. Much of the trade is fraudulent – but if you don’t get what you pay for, you’ll hardly complain, let alone sue.
According to the Internet Watch Foundation, more than 730 websites devoted to child abuse images appeared on the Dark Web in 2020.
Cybersecurity expert Edward Lucas says there are ‘foolproof’ ways to access the Dark Web – hence the serious danger it poses to children
Psychologists have warned that the sheer horror of these images can cause rapid desensitization.
Some users, after the initial shock of revulsion, seek even more hideous images. This mental ennui is linked to another psychological effect: ‘disassociation’. Because the video is just a moving picture and the people involved are strangers, none of it looks real.
Professor Alan Woodward, a computer science and cyber security specialist from the University of Surrey, told the Mail’s podcast about Brianna Ghey’s murder, The Trial: ‘They see people doing it or maybe they do something softer online and nobody comes knocks on their door, so they launch a frenzied attack and they don’t think about the consequences because they’re still living in that online virtual world.’
That seems to be what happened to Scarlett Jenkinson. At the age of ten, she seemed like an ordinary girl to her family. But by 13, she was addicted to horror movies, first on Netflix and then via darker portals. At 15, she was a ruthless killer.
No generation of children has ever been more at risk for corruption. We can hope that undercover detective work and cyber sleuths at GCHQ will eventually destroy the business model of these monsters.
But for now, the best chance our children have is the vigilance of their families and teachers, especially their parents. If we don’t keep them safe, who will?
Edward Lucas is the author of Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet