The Dark Web explained

When I first heard about The Dark Web I thought it must be the product of someones twisted imagination.

I first heard whispers about it through backpackers and alternative lifestyle types while travelling. I later read about it on some forums and hacking websites, but never took the plunge to investigate it any further.

Eventually, with the high-profile shutdown of the best known Dark Web site The Silk Road and arrest of it’s alleged founder Ross Ulbricht, curiosity got the better of me. I had to find out what The Dark Web was. It was now out of the underground and plastered all over the mainstream media. It had clearly reached a new level.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to discover about The Dark Web.

This is an alternative internet approximately three times bigger than the regular internet. It’s beyond the reach of Google or any major search engine.

It’s a whole tangled spiderweb of websites offering everything from counterfeit currency to government issued identities. From literal contract killings to football fixes and every kind of drug on the planet for sale. All this, delivered to your front door within days through The Dark Web.

This is a place where political activists meet to plot the overthrowing of tyrannical governments in the Middle East. Or where they plan their political activities in complete privacy, safe from the SWAT teams ready to mow them down upon being given the order.

Now imagine that every transaction which takes place on The Dark Web is both anonymous and untraceable.

Through the use of the crypto-currency Bitcoin and anonymous web browsers like TOR, operating on The Dark Web leaves you virtually untrackable.

Welcome to The Dark Web. Welcome to the libertarians wet dream – a place where every human being on the planet can connect, buy, sell and communicate. All this whilst shielded from the prying eyes of big poppa government and the grubby hands of the established authorities.

Of course, any such place is going to be a double-edged sword. It will lead to the best and the worst of humanity cropping up and making its presence felt. The Dark web, offering complete anonymity for the first time in recent history, seems to have brought out mostly the worst of us.

Without a doubt the biggest “section” of The Dark Web is dedicated to illegal buying and selling. Guns, drugs, false documents, illegal services and even weapons of mass destruction can all be bought and sold on The Dark Web. There is quite literally nothing the governments of the world can do to stop it.

Take Silk Road, for example

Silk Road is the most high profile case of a Dark Web site being busted and shut down. But within hours there was a Silk Road 2.

The Dark Web - Silk Road
Silk Road – The Dark Web. Source: Silk Road

Every time a major site is shut down, several alternatives, often bigger and better than their fallen counterparts, pop up to replace it within hours. Evolution is a prime example of a Silk Road replacement. It has built in security features that make busting it in the same way Silk Road was rumbled all but impossible.

The Dark Web operates and offers such anonymity because of two recent developments in technology.

Firstly, the rise in popularity of multi-layered proxy servers in response to people’s concerns over government snooping.

Secondly, the rise and ever-increasing popularity of Bitcoin. It’s a crypto-currency created entirely by a computer program outside of any financial institutions control. It offers the buyer and seller a level of anonymity which is even greater than pure cash transactions.

Online technology has reached a point of no return. It has reached a point where those who have largely created it have lost control of it, and where the people of the world for the first time in history have more power than those who rule them.

This presents a series of never before seen problems, but also opportunities for much-needed change. It could lead to revolution, but also catastrophe.

How did The Dark Web get started?

To understand, we have to look back into the subculture of computer hacking and the values that subgroup of society hold.

In the late 90’s I got my first computer and was immediately fascinated by the doors this machine unlocked to me. I spent countless hours on this piece of junk learning things I never knew existed.

Eventually I decided to try to understand how they worked. Naturally, seeking deeper knowledge about computers leads one into the world of computer hacking, and the hackers themselves. And this is what I looked at.

Back then the big players were Portwolf (a legend who had served time in prison for hacking US government server) and Soldier X, a group dedicated to absolute anonymity and privacy on the web.

As I delved into this fascinating world I quickly learned that the biggest enemy of computer hackers, and the very thing they seek to escape most, is authority and government.

Naturally, this led to The Dark Web

The Dark Web is the ultimate hacker paradise fused with libertarian economic ideals (anything goes as long as it is voluntary and between free adults).

It may have taken a decade for the technology to catch up and the internet to evolve to these colossal, global levels… but it is here. The Dark Web has become a reality.

Ironically the Dark Web would have stayed very much in the dark if the FBI and DEA had not made such a high-profile scene out of shutting down Silk Road. Of course, they made it high-profile on purpose, to send a message to The Dark Web participants that they were onto them. It backfired and within days there were several replacements and many more users.

So what we have in The Dark Web is a synthesis of people from vastly different subcultures with a common goal: absolute freedom. The freedom to do as you please without asking for permission. The freedom to say what you want without being put on a list. The freedom to sell what you want without being taxed or imprisoned. This is the common ideal behind the different participants of the dark web, and so far, in the vast majority of cases, it has been a success.

That’s The Dark Web today and that’s where it started, but where might it lead?

The answer largely depends on technology and the race to create and control it.

It depends on who will have the upper hands – the powers that be or the stealth, rule breaking hackers and criminals. For the first time these two underworld elements have combined and are now a formidable force to be reckoned with. This is causing the FBI and the DEA among others many sleepless nights.

My money is on the hackers and the criminals. I honestly think that they will always have the upper hand and stay ahead of the curve because of one simple fact: they are not bound by the bureaucracy and rules they so despise. They are quick, sleek, they evolve and move and use every situation to their advantage. By the time the government has obtained a warrant and launch an investigation it’s already too late. The sites under question may have moved servers or changed their encryption.

What we are seeing is literally a battle of ideals – it is order versus chaos. It is much more than a marketplace or a community.

The Dark Web is liberty versus control.

Common sense says a balance needs to be struck between the two, and most readers would agree. For now, however, anarchy reigns supreme on The Dark Web. As cloaking technology and mega-proxies evolve and grow, those willing to break the rules will seemingly always have the upper hand.

So how exactly does The Dark Web work from a technological standpoint?

The key elements that make the Dark Web work

TOR – TOR is a web browser which is an acronym for The Onion Router

It got its name from the fact that it is multi-layered, just like an onion. What do we mean by multilayered? Well first let’s take a look at how the real internet works, and then compare TOR.

In a standard web connection there are three parties – you, the server (host on which the web page/file is stored) and your internet service provider (ISP). This is a simple connection and if you were to communicate or engage in any illegal activity it would be a piece of cake for interested parties to trace. All they would have to do is access the host server and obtain your IP address or contact the ISP. Then your identity could be revealed.

TOR is a different kettle of fish. It’s a super-proxy whereby you go through multiple proxy servers (4 is standard) and some of the data is retrieved through one, while some is retrieved through others. The chances of the authorities being able to trace a data packet are very slim indeed.

It’s worth mentioning that all dark web domain names are beyond the reach of Google and major search engines. They are typically a random series of letters and numbers followed by the domain extension .onion and have to be accessed using TOR.

Some directories do exist such as The Hidden Wiki, of which there are several versions. It is not uncommon for a .onion website to go down for a period of time while changing servers or being busted by federal agents.

Bitcoin – the digital currency nobody owns or controls

For those wishing to buy and sell on The Dark Web, Bitcoin is the answer. You can buy it securely here.

When Bitcoin first rose to fame, some people believed it was going to create a worldwide revolution in the financial system, collapse the establishment and enslave humanity. Heavy duty thoughts huh? This has not occurred, although some diehards are holding out hope yet.

The Dark Web - Bitcoin
Bitcoin is an important currency on The Dark Web

How exactly Bitcoin got started and by who nobody knows. It is a digital currency which is generated and released by a computer program authored by a rebel-genius who goes under the handle Satoshi Nakamoto.

It isn’t difficult to guess that Mr (or Mrs) Nakamoto may be Japanese, but then again it may be a teenager in his mothers basement sporting a neck beard. Nobody has ever figured it out, but plenty of conspiracy theories abound for those who wish to look further into the subject.

How Bitcoin works in theory is simple enough

The program issues new “coins” which are divided up into tiny fractions and bought by people who wish to use Bitcoin. It is, much like other currencies, backed by absolutely nothing of inherent value, but works because other people have faith that at some point someone will trade them a good or service in exchange for bitcoin.

Bitcoin is completely de-centralised and is not under the control of any bank, government or institution. Everyone who uses Bitcoin has a copy of “the ledger” and can see every transaction which takes place, although they can not see the name of a user, just an account number and transaction amount.

You can use a different account number for every transaction, so it is very difficult indeed to prove that the same person engaged in say two transactions on dates x and y.

If this boggles your mind – this video may make things simpler. You’re not alone in feeling that Bitcoin is slightly overwhelming – but then again so is the current money system we operate in, isn’t it? Just switch on CNBC and try to make sense of what is going on, and you’ll soon realise Bitcoin is really no worse and probably a lot safer.

Various other Dark Web anonymity services

Of course when such a thing as The Dark Web takes root, the people using it find ways to enhance their security and anonymity even further.

A whole host of services has arisen surrounding the dark web from fake ID services to freight forwarding and anonymous, discreet parcel delivery services. There’s even something called a Bitcoin laundry service which mixes bitcoins from different wallets together and distributes them randomly back to your wallet, making them even harder to trace.

These services aim to provide an extra layer of protection in the areas where Dark Web users are vulnerable – eg if you have some suspicious smelling produce posted to your home, the UPS guy is not going to do you any favours if the FBI follow him to your doorstep. Whereas a discreet shipping service stakes its entire reputation and future as a business on making sure no such thing happens. Some even send a parcel to multiple locations to lose any tails before delivering to your doorstep.

The origins of The Silk Road

The Silk Road was the mac daddy website of The Dark Web as far as black markets go.

Accessible only through Tor and initially charging a set fee for a user account, users of this website could buy and sell absolutely anything for Bitcoin. It was said that over $1 billion USD was traded on this exchange alone between 2011, when it was launched, and 2013, when it was shut down by the FBI. That’s explosive growth by anybody’s standards!

Silk road administrators made their money by taking a set % of all sales, and when the FBI seized the website and arrested its alleged founder, they found over $3.6 million worth of Bitcoin on his computer, although records showed that at one time there had been over $87 million worth of Bitcoin in total.

The Silk Road was named after the ancient trade route between Europe and the East travelled upon by pioneers like Marco Polo and others. As the website grew and required administration a central character made an appearance known as “Dread Pirate Roberts”, who claimed to have created, built and run the website from its inception.

The FBI takedown of The Silk Road

Underground hackers the world over like to think they are a step ahead of everyone else in understanding and manipulating tech. It is hard to stay ahead of a dedicated team with the vast resources of the government though. They have the sole aim of bringing you down and are assigned to the task 24-7.

On October 2nd 2013 Ross William Ulbricht was arrested at a public library in San Francisco, accused of being Dread Pirate Roberts. He was logged in to the Dread Pirate Roberts account. He was indicted on charges of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics and the attempted murder of six people, although the latter charges were dropped before the trial began.

His defence team claimed he was set up by the real “Dread Pirate Roberts”. They claimed he was the fall guy and that there were in fact multiple users who went under this handle. The judge ruled against him and convicted him of seven offences. The judge sentenced him to two terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, and fined him $183 million.

“You wanted this to be your legacy” she said in a closing statement “and it is”. Death threats, the leaking of her personal information including her address and photographs of the judge went live on The Dark Web, but she remained steadfast and doled out the maximum punishment.

Understanding the consequences of The Dark Web

The Silk Road Case and conviction of Ross Ulbricht is interesting because it raises many questions about technology, privacy and the how the internet has changed things and the questions that come about in these cases such as the below.

The Dark Web - Ross Ulbricht
Ross Ulbricht was an important figure in the development of The Dark Web. Source: RollingStone

While the jury convicted Mr. Ulbricht based on the testimony of experts called forth by the prosecution, how is it possible for the average layman to even understand the mind-boggling cryptography of Bitcoin? Let alone reach a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt?

Should we review the legal system in cases like these and appoint specialists with the ability to understand what is going on?

Do we need to amend laws to deal with these types of cases so that defendants have a chance to prove they have been set up, like Mr. Ulbricht claims he was?

How can we convict one man for a crime when it is clearly known that there were at least four people logging in under the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” on a 24-7 basis? How can we tell which crimes he is guilty of and which crimes may have been the doing of someone else?

Can law enforcement convict someone of crimes committed in North Korea (technically) while sitting in his living room in New York?

Does an individual have a right to privacy for example by denying federal agents access to their computer unless they can show probable cause?

What happens if a hacker logs into your account and uses your computer to conduct illegal activity? How can you protect yourself?

These are profound but important questions which we need to come to grips with.

A summary and some final thoughts on The Dark Web

Love it or hate it, The Dark Web and websites like Silk Road are here to stay. They are growing stronger and bigger by the day. They are now de-centralising so that it will be almost impossible for law enforcement to bust them effectively in the future. Just as Napster evolved into Bit Torrent, and so sites like Silk Road are evolving into peer-to-peer networks with no central server, too.

These questions will not simply disappear and go away. We as a society have to face them, work them out and come up with answers. Technology has changed everything and now everything must change to meet it on its own ground.

The life of Ross Ulbricht, a thirty year old libertarian idealist from Texas who loved his family and believed in freedom, yet who clearly crossed legal lines with severe consequences, is over. He maintains his innocence and says that he relinquished control of the website early on and was later set up as the fall guy when the heat was on.

Nobody will ever know if he is telling the truth because there are only a small percentage of people on the planet with the ability to fully understand this technology.

How do you know that on any given day a hacker is not taking over your IP address and using your computer to engage in less than wholesome activities? And you would be unable to prove your innocence.

To me, that’s a terrifying thought and it needs to be addressed urgently, for all of our sakes.