- Internet, Deep Web, Darknet – what’s what?
- The complex, dangerous and disturbing underworld that is the Darknet
- The rise and fall of the notorious Silk Road market
- Drugs – from cigarettes to Devil’s Breath and free samples to boot
- Snuff movies and crush movies - not your average porn
- Forums that encourage eating disorders and even suicide
- Fake passports, social security numbers, credit cards and more
- Guns, hitmen and weapons of mass destruction
- Shutting down the Darknet: an endless game of whack-a-mole?
The Internet we all use on a daily basis is really nothing more than a thin veil that obscures a morally and ethically perplexing cyber underworld, also known as the Darknet. The Darknet is a part of the Deep Web and not only is it a refuge for political bloggers and revolutionaries - it’s where the malicious, illegal and sinister stuff happens. Think assassins advertising their services and drug dealers selling their wares. It’s a lawless place where the scum of the world runs free.
Internet, Deep Web, Darknet – what’s what?
The Internet or surface net is relatively ‘clean’, and everyone has easy access to it. Then there’s the Deep Web. This part of the Internet is sometimes thought to be malicious but in actual fact, it is simply too large to be indexed and when it comes to their crawling indexing capabilities, our search engines are limited. The Deep Web is actually a necessary invention. People living in countries that restrict Internet access, as well as activists and journalists fearing for their privacy make use of the Deep Web because it enables them to browse in peace. It contains private content, large databases, and academic journals and libraries that are not available to the public. The Deep Web itself contains nothing scary or sinister. But what then, makes the Deep Web sound so scary? The answer is: the Darknet.
The complex, dangerous and disturbing underworld that is the Darknet
The Darknet is the non-indexed, secret section of the Deep Web that is primarily, although not solely, used by those engaged in illegal and criminal activities. It’s a complex, dangerous and disturbing world that stretches to the most hidden corners of the encrypted web. What makes the Darknet so fascinating to many, is that it cannot be accessed through our regular browsers. It is a group of websites with .onion domains and the browser software needed to access these sites is called ‘The Onion Router’ or Tor. With Tor, you can access directories, free-for-all link dumps and wikis that can help you find whatever you are looking for; all without having to give up your IP address. Another ‘privacy network’ on the Darknet, the Invisible Internet Project or I2P, is also steadily gaining popularity. I2P offers various improvements such as file storage and sharing, secure mail as well as blog and chat features. The architecture of the Darknet was originally developed in 2002 - by the US Navy - with the purpose to provide a platform for anonymous communication. The way data is routed through layers makes it virtually untraceable which also inspired the moniker ‘anonymous net’. There are between 7,000 and 60,000 .onion sites on the Darknet.
Who uses the Darknet?
As Tor was initially developed by the US Navy - military, law enforcement and government organisations are among some of the main Darknet users. The ‘normal’ Internet can easily reveal your location and whom you are communicating with – even if encryption is used - which is dangerous for intelligence agencies, military personnel and those involved in top secret political negotiations. The Darknet is also popular in countries where political imprisonment and censorship are commonplace. You will therefore find many bloggers, whistleblowers, activists, information-leakers, revolutionaries and journalists there. The anonymity of the Darknet enables them to communicate without fear of getting caught and to organise themselves without giving away their location. The Darknet is also teeming with criminals and sinister groups such as drug dealers, pornographers, political extremists, assassins, and hackers. On its numerous notorious markets, one can buy goods and services with a mere click of the mouse, pay with Bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies and have your order delivered directly to your door.
The rise and fall of the notorious Silk Road market
One of the most well-known Darknet sites was the notorious Silk Road drug market. It was the largest of its kind on the Internet and only accessible via Tor - hidden from the public eye. In 2013, Ross William Ulbricht, Penn state graduate student and mastermind and founder of Silk Road, was arrested and his site taken down by the FBI. Ulbricht was charged with drug trafficking, computer hacking and money laundry, and the FBI seized about $33.6 million in Bitcoins, the last of which were auctioned off in November last year. To many, taking down Silk Road may have felt like a victory in the fight against crime, but the truth is that many other sites like these immediately popped up in its place. In the meantime, we have already seen the emergence of new marketplaces like Silk Road 2.0 and 3.0 as well as Evolution and tens of thousands of other sites. There, the sale of weapons, drugs, child pornography, counterfeit documents and even assassinations is business as usual.
Drugs – from cigarettes to Devil’s Breath and free samples to boot
There are thousands of drug listings on the Darknet, ranging from the ‘harmless’ cigarette to designer drugs, heroin, cocaine, steroids and everything in between. What’s most bizarre is that some dealers even offer their customers free drug samples. To give you an idea of what’s available: there are over 3,000 cannabis listings, hundreds of listings for heroin, over a thousand for psychedelics such as shrooms and LSD, more than 2,000 for ecstasy and a thousand-plus listings for painkillers and stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall. Happy customers can submit product ratings and you often come across posts such as this marijuana review: “Very potent and clean weed. Sensational smell, 30 grams on scale ;-)” The scariest drug in the world, Devil’s Breath, is also for sale on the Darknet. When blown into someone’s face, the drug is said to ‘zombify’ its victim, leaving them at risk of being raped, their homes burgled, their bank accounts emptied or their organs stolen. Although the mysterious drug has been blamed for thousands of crimes, the degree to which the stories are true remains unknown.
Snuff movies and crush movies - not your average porn
While ‘average’ pornography is easily accessible on the Internet, the kind of porn you find in the trenches of the Darknet is a whole new level of disturbing. There’s an abundance of child pornography and content related to child abuse. Rape movies and snuff movies are hot commodities, and then there’s crush porn – in which animals are brutally murdered. The proliferation of these kinds of pornography is one of the most unsettling aspects of the Darknet and because of the cryptic veils these sites hide behind, they are very complicated to remove.
Forums that encourage eating disorders and even suicide
It gets worse. The Darknet is also home to forums where people suffering from eating disorders and depression get together to socialise with like-minded people. These forums are used to exchange tips and tricks related to how to best starve yourself and members are praised for going days without any food. On suicide forums, members are encouraged to embrace their dark thoughts and to find likeminded individuals to form suicide pacts with. Although deemed loathsome by many, others find them liberating and even therapeutic, as they enable members to ‘exercise their demons’, to speak freely and openly about their disturbing thoughts and actions.
Fake passports, social security numbers, credit cards and more
Among forged documents that you can buy on the Darknet are fake Driver’s licences and social security numbers. You can also easily get digital passports of various countries. Actual passports are a little harder to get hold of but you can sometimes find them in the ‘services’ section for around $6000-$7000. Counterfeit money is also freely available; highly detailed fake versions of the real thing. Then there are thousands upon thousands of credit card numbers for sale for around $8 (and discounted when purchased in large quantities). These can be stamped onto blank cards and used online. One particular credit card seller on the Darknet received more than 1,000 positive reviews. You can also buy hacked bank accounts, PayPal accounts, Uber accounts and Netflix accounts – for just a few dollars each.
Guns, hitmen and weapons of mass destruction
Alongside drugs, porn and counterfeit documents, we also see a huge range of weapons being offered on the Darknet. The guns you can get range from your ‘average’ 9mm pistols and AK47 assault rifles to .22 calibre pen-guns that fire a single shot and can be broken down into smaller pieces. Of course these types of weapons are sold for one purpose and one purpose only: to assassinate someone. You can also buy electromagnetic pulse devices from China, which can be used to add credits to casino slot machines or vending machines. What EMP devices can also do, however, is wipe out the electronics such as TVs, computers and smartphones. With a large enough electromagnetic pulse device, one could even wipe out a complete city power grid. Then there’s DIY bombs and grenades and one merchant even has century-old bombs from WWI for sale. There are tutorials on how to build your own 3D-printed gun, as well as step-by-step instructions on the best way to hack an ATM. The most sinister of Darknet sites are the ones where you can actually hire a hitman who will assassinate someone for $150,000. To top it all off, you can even buy quarter-sized pieces of Uranium ore on the Darknet. You can only imagine what someone could do with that.
Shutting down the Darknet: an endless game of whack-a-mole?
In the year the original Silk Road was shut down by the FBI, a multitude of new illicit marketplaces such as AlphaBay, Agora and others popped up in its place and the Darknet economy more than doubled. According to a research study at Carnegie Mellon, the Darknet ecosystem currently generates more than $500,000 per day and while the FBI has pledged to try their hardest to close down as many of these sites as possible, it looks like there’s very little they can do. It’s like playing an endless whack-a-mole game. A recent Canadian survey acknowledged that: "The anonymity of the technology of the Darknet cuts both ways — while people can use the network for villainous purposes, people can also use it for good. Despite public opinion, shuttering anonymity networks is not a viable long-term solution, as it will probably prove ineffective and will be costly to those people that genuinely benefit from these systems."