The internet is a simultaneously strange, scary and beautiful place, but all of your Facebook posts and YouTube videos are barely the surface. No, really, the internet you know is but a tiny portion of its true form. If you dive deep enough, you can get access to just about anything.
Underneath the veneer of the “surface web” is what they call the “deep web”, which is simply anything that cannot be accessed by a search engine like Google. A lot of this data is fairly benign and in most cases, boring. For example, many US Government records are classified as being in the deep web because they are not indexed by search engines or protected by passwords.
But it’s when we start looking deeper that things get weird. A portion of the deep web is what is referred to as the “dark web”, a place where everything is hidden on purpose, mainly because it’s highly illegal. It’s said that the surface web accounts for only 4% of the internet, while the rest is attributed to the deep/dark web.
You can’t get to the dark web with your run-of-mill internet browser, you need one capable of anonymous browsing. The most popular is a browser called TOR (The Onion Router) and it essentially gives a big “fuck you” to anyone attempting to track your online activity by changing your IP address (location) constantly. One minute you’ll appear to be in Germany, the next, you’re dark webbing from Saudi Arabia. This makes it extremely hard to track, but not entirely impossible.
The most notable website accessible through the dark web was Silk Road, a black market of weapons, drugs and even hitmen. The site, along with it’s successor, Silk Road 2.0 have since been shut down, but in their heyday raked in some serious coin, according to the FBI.
“From February 6, 2011 to July 23, 2013 there were approximately 1,229,465 transactions completed on the site. The total revenue generated from these sales was 9,519,664 Bitcoins, and the total commissions collected by Silk Road from the sales amounted to 614,305 Bitcoins. These figures are equivalent to roughly $1.2 billion in revenue and $79.8 million in commissions, at current Bitcoin exchange rates…”
And while Silk Road may have been the most prolific of the online marketplaces, there are many more that are still operating today. If one goes down, another will rise to take its place. According to Trend Micro, 32% of traded goods in the top 15 dark web marketplaces involve cannabis and a fake US passport will cost you 5,900 US dollars.
But perhaps the scariest stories of all are those presented in the Reddit post “What’s your deep web story?” A thread where those who have experienced it first hand shared their stories. Here are some of the best.
“I was a part of the No Love Deep Web Alternate Reality Game where we had to do a deepnet scavenger hunt which culminated in me driving to New York to answer a pay phone at 3:00AM. That was cool.”
That was cool. Good grief.
Another user describes otherworldly forums:
“I once found a forum dedicated to sharing recordings of the automated messages that tell you the next stop on trains. People would post the recordings that they presumably made themselves and then they would discuss them.
It haunts me to this day. I have so many questions.”
And even though it might be difficult, TOR users can still be tracked.
“I posted a comment on a video, and when I went back to that page to watch the video later, someone replied to my comment saying: ‘That is very astute of you Mr. (insert my last name)’
I didn’t internet for like a week. my last name is not a common one.”
Others just wanna sell their wares, man!
“There was a German man selling pretzels, just pretzels.”
If you ever needed proof that the internet is a scarier place than you could ever imagine, there it is. Pretzels.
It’s an anonymous hive-mind of humanity where the consequences of illegal actions are rarely realised, let alone considered by the wider majority. But in the days of Silk Road, it was about much more than illegal trade, it was a statement and an alternative to dodgy street dealers, though it seems that things have now become far more seedy, says Wired.
“Instead of the Silk Road’s principled—if still very illegal—alternative to the violence and unpredictable products of street dealers, the dark web’s economy has become nearly as shady as the Internet back alley politicians and moralizing TV pundits have long compared it to.”
Berkley computer science researcher Nick Weaver says that the days of trust in the dark web are long gone. “if you’re trustworthy, you stay up for a while, the heat increases, and eventually you get nailed by the feds.”
He says that most of those willing to ride the risk wave are far more likely to take off with whatever bitcoin they have stored in user accounts as soon as they feel they are being watched, or when they are happy with the amount of money they can take. This is dubbed as the “exit scam.”
And it’s not just those running the show that should be worried, an Australian cocaine and MDMA merchant was the first person to be convicted of dealing through Silk Road in 2013. Users are also being target by the DEA and Australian police for purchasing illegal goods.
As scary as it seems, the dark web is an utterly fascinating insight into the evolution of organised crime in the 21st century. Huge amounts of money and the promise of anonymity coupled with paranoia and the increasing realities of FBI takedowns have created a den for the depraved and those looking for a quick buck.
I sure as hell wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot digital pole.