An American dominatrix controls her male slave through Skype and social media. A group of young Swedes voluntarily implant microchips into their arms. Impoverished Filipinos force children into lucrative cybersex with foreigners, while Dutch engineers create a young digital avatar to catch them.
These are some of the global stories that have bubbled up from the deep web—the part of the Internet undetected by most search engines—into the cultural consciousness, and now to a Showtime docu-series, Dark Net, premiering January 21, about the promise and perils of lives lived online.
The program is the brainchild of Israeli technology entrepreneur Mati Kochavi, 53, and produced by his New York tech/media company Vocativ, a news site that finds stories by data mining the deep web, 80% of the Internet beyond the reach of regular search engines. Vocativ uses proprietary data software to target emerging movements and people at their epicenter.
Dark Net—executive produced by Vocativ’s Danna Rabin and Vivian Schiller and Part2 Productions’ David Shadrack Smith—highlights more fleshed out versions of those stories. Each episode features individuals viewers might identify with representing sectors of bigger trends that can affect our lives.
“We’re trying to show where the deep web meets life and how technology is affecting our life,” says Kochavi. “I look at the deep web like the human unconscious, growing until it becomes part of physical life. The dark net isn’t the topic; it’s what’s happening in it, where ideas and concepts are evolving. You can find out where to buy a kidney or a weapon, but also see ideas, how they take shape, and shape our lives altogether. It’s not just individuals. Think of how easy it is for someone to take over a society by using technology.”
Consider the dominatrix and her submissive partner. “She controls him from a distance,” he says. “But what if it’s governments? What if it’s bad governments? Where is the data that’s about you and me? What do companies know about me, and what are they doing with it? Twenty percent of young Israel is already implanting chips in their bodies. The Jews in the Holocaust had numbers on their arms and kept saying, ‘How can I get rid of this number?’ And now they’re putting it back.”
Vocativ and Dark Net are modern iterations of Kochavi coming full circle from his original intention to become a history professor.
In college, he attempted a startup to create history education games, which slowly redirected him into technology businesses, like fiber optics. In the ’90s, he retired from business to start a cross-border university where Israelis and Jordanians could study together. That fell apart when Middle East tensions proved too great. After 9-11, he invested in companies improving security through data. From there he started the Zurich-headquartered AGT International, which he still runs, to apply such data analysis to burgeoning attempts at smart cities and law enforcement probing the deep web for illegal activity.
When he formed Vocativ in 2013 to employ this data analysis in journalism, his two worlds—technology and education—finally began to coalesce. “I founded Vocativ to create knowledge about what happens in the world so people will be much more sophisticated about what’s happening. We’re not about warning people. We’re storytellers. You decide if it’s a warning or not.”
His company has some 60 developers, data scientists, and reporters looking for connections between open data, blogs, chat rooms, forums, and the dark web’s complicated, unstructured data that’s difficult to automate.
“You have to build very strong engines that deal with big data, unstructured language, and geofencing, and know how to analyze it,” says Kochavi. “You’re not searching with names and keywords but 1s and 0s. Google, if they wanted to do it, could have done it. They can do everything. I think that is not part of their business model to look for data.”
To illustrate the Vocativ process, Kochavi shows what appears visually to be a cohesive demonstration in a Middle East country. However, culling and sifting participants’ social media comments from the participants reveals three separate—and adversarial—groups. Zooming further into the data reveals more subcategories (and contact info), and eventually Vocativ reporters might reach out to some of those individuals for comment. “For us, each one of these people is data producer,” says Kochavi.
Through this system, Vocativ was able to break the story about the Paris kosher supermarket terrorists being followers of ISIS , and American companies selling weapons to Ukranian fighters against Russia. Then there was the story about the dumbing down of Presidential State of the Union speeches over the centuries.
Since forming, Vocativ has struck deals with MSNBC to produce news segments, with Showtime to produce Dark Net, and with two more undisclosed projects on outlets Kochavi can’t discuss yet, but says will air this year. It also started using the same technology for branded content, and there are plans for a film division and online streaming channel.
Meanwhile, Dark Net has created a heightened awareness among production team members about their digital footprints. “I’d been skating through my digital life without thinking about the ramifications,” says Schiller. “It’s completely changed the way I think about using digital media. I’ve become more mindful and aware of all the data I’m sending out into the world in a way I wasn’t before.”
All of which begs the question whether shedding a light on the extremes of human behavior is making people more mindful about gauging or changing it? Is this information showcasing the best or worst in humanity?
Kochavi thinks for a bit. “Both.”