The Internet has evolved quite a bit since I first logged on to CompuServe in 1994. I’d spent a few years tooling around on BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) connections throughout the country at that point and the most visible portions of a forming World Wide Web were quite innocent in appearance. But as I ramped up my father’s 4600 baud modem and looked around at the fringes of online existence, I unknowingly caught a glimpse at the Web’s early underbelly. From there, pornography, craziness and illegal activities were easily accessible. There weren’t many people logging on so, naturally, there weren’t many people to police this new digital space. Eventually, as AOL, Prodigy and other ISPs became more mainstream, the more nefarious outlets vanished into the shadows. But where did it all go? I recently took a plunge into the ‘Deep Web,’ a sub-surface area of the Internet not indexed by search engines and only available to those on the forefront of technology, namely people connected to the Tor Network. This network of hidden websites is the new underbelly of the Web, the New Underground, if you will, chock full of all sorts of illicit activities. Child porn peddlers, drug dealers, hitmen and other criminal groups thrive on the Deep Web and anonymity reigns supreme. The following post outlines my findings and hopefully sheds some light on the true Wild Wild West of the World Wide Web.
What is the Deep Web?: Wikipedia has an excellent overview on the Deep Web.
The Deep Web (also called Deepnet, the invisible Web, DarkNet, Undernet or the hidden Web) refers to World Wide Web content that is not part of the Surface Web, which is indexed by standard search engines.
Mike Bergman, credited with coining the phrase, has said that searching on the Internet today can be compared to dragging a net across the surface of the ocean: a great deal may be caught in the net, but there is a wealth of information that is deep and therefore missed. Most of the Web’s information is buried far down on dynamically generated sites, and standard search engines do not find it. Traditional search engines cannot “see” or retrieve content in the deep Web – those pages do not exist until they are created dynamically as the result of a specific search. The deep Web is several orders of magnitude larger than the surface Web.
So if the Internet as you know it is an iceberg, the smallest part of that iceberg, the visible portion, is where you have been surfing your entire life. You visit websites, click links, use search engines to research topics of interest and generally just make your way around the visible Web. But below that visible portion, there is a much larger compilation of destinations beyond the reach of most Internet users. This portion, the Deep Web, is much harder for the average person to access and even harder to navigate. Much of the criminal activity that happens on the Deep Web is cloaked in anonymity, shrouded in secrecy or somehow hidden from the prying eyes that would love to put an end to this virtual land of OZ. Essentially what I’m saying is this: You may be familiar with the Internet, maybe even the darker side of the Internet. You may know how to find pornography for free, download music illegally, use a torrent program to download pirated movies and other media or purchase prescription pills from some online pharmacy. But if you haven’t visited the Deep Web, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Sure, there are research papers and legitimate and interesting pieces of content to view on The Other Side but there’s also some pretty nefarious happenings there.
How do you connect to the Deep Web?: Though the Deep Web may be beyond those of you with little in the way of technical and Web savvy, it’s not impossible, nor even extremely difficult to visit. First, you’ll need to download Tor, the software that allows you to access the Deep Web. Tor is designed to provide Internet users with as close to complete anonymity as possible. The Tor website describes their software and their mission as follows.
Tor protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world: it prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, and it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location. Tor works with many of your existing applications, including web browsers, instant messaging clients, remote login, and other applications based on the TCP protocol.
You can use Tor on virtually any PC, Mac or even mobile devices like the iPhone and Android-operated smartphones. But, if, like me, you’re using Firefox, you next need to install the Torbutton. With the Tor software up and running and the Torbutton installed, you’ll see a small onion logo near the address bar of your browser. If you’re correctly logged in to the Tor network, you can click this button and begin to explore the Deep Web. This collection of Deep Web links should get you started. But, keep in mind, you won’t be able to maneuver in this new land quite as easily as you did back on the visible Web. There is no Google-like search engine of these sites that I’m aware of at the moment. Instead, it’s a collection of Wikis and BBS-like sites that aggregate links to other locations on the Deep Web. These sites generally have bizarre, unmemorable domain names like SdddEEDOHIIDdddgmomionw.onion. That’s right, instead of .com, these domains generally end in the .onion suffix. And because you’ll never remember how you got to where you are if you spend any significant time here, it’s best to save URLs or bookmark your way through this journey.
What can you find on the Deep Web?: The Silk Road is the most popular place to buy drugs on the Deep Web. From ecstasy, pure MDMA, marijuana, psychedelics and seeds to opiates, they have basically any drug with a userbase. They also have categories for ‘services’ like hacking, ‘lab supplies’ like sulfuric acid and liquid mercury, ‘money’ for stolen credit cards, travelers checks and forged bills and coins, ‘jewelry’ like uncut stones, stolen gold and other precious metals obtained via devious means and finally ‘weapons’ where they currently list a Glock 17 for sale out of Canada that “includes 1 clip with 9 live rounds.” Another Deep Web drug outlet, the General Store, focuses on Ketamine, MDMA, MDPV and DMT (you may need to Google some of those).
Additional items in the ‘marijuana’ category on The Silk Road:
Forum posts like this are common (and often answered) and even include requests for murders:
(Note: This is not from The Silk Road, but a popular message board on the Deep Web)
Most transactions on the Deep Web are conducted via Bitcoins. You can purchase virtually anything with this digital currency, ranging from the legit to the oh-so-far-away from legit. You can buy all the items outlined above and you can even hire a prostitute. There is, however, some debate over whether or not these transactions are anonymous (more on that below). 1 Bitcoin = $9 US.
You can find literally ANYTHING illegal on the Deep Web. Speaking of illegal…
Let me issue a STRONG WARNING at this point. Be extremely careful what sites you visit and links you click. You could find yourself on a child pornography website or just all-around grotesque sexual deviance-focused site that will ruin your experience (and in the case of child pornography, your life). The wiki page linked to above contains mostly safe sites to search but stay away from anything labeled as a ‘chan’ or ‘bulletin board’ as they probably traffic heavily in child pornography. Anything labeled CP is to be AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS. It will lead you to child porn.
There are sites on the Deep Web that offer the services of hitmen, advice to gang members, directions on how to build explosives, how to cheat at virtually anything and pretty much any other illegal activity or service that you can dream of – it’s all there, some of it is frightening, some of it is interesting, all of it is anonymous. Wait, is it really anonymous?
Is this all truly anonymous?: Probably not. To the horse’s mouth, we go.
Update: Jeff Garzik, a member of the Bitcoin core development team, says in an email that bitcoin is not as anonymous as the denizens of Silk Road would like to believe. He explains that because all Bitcoin transactions are recorded in a public log, though the identities of all the parties are anonymous, law enforcement could use sophisticated network analysis techniques to parse the transaction flow and track down individual Bitcoin users.
“Attempting major illicit transactions with bitcoin, given existing statistical analysis techniques deployed in the field by law enforcement, is pretty damned dumb,” he says.
Though he may be saying that because Bitcoin hopes to be viewed as a legitimate business.
My journey though The New Underground, the Deep Dark Web, was interesting, to say the least. There’s a lot of potential for trouble down near the bottom of this iceberg, so always be aware of what you’re doing and the legality of your actions. Still, I have an unquenchable thirst for the unknown so by carefully maneuvering in a way that kept several meters and a snake pit between myself and the most vile content on the Deep Web, I was able to learn a bit about a facet of the Internet I had yet to discover. I’d encourage you to poke around a bit as well. But, remember, do so at your own risk. Be safe, watch what you click and refrain from purchasing anything along the way.
Be careful, it’s a whole new world down there.