It’s time that we all learn a thing or two about the deep web. It can be a scary place; often called the “dark web” or the “hidden” internet, the deeper corners of the internet attract a dangerous minority of web users. Browsing the tamer websites of the deep web, you can find handy guides on cybersecurity, rare editions of hard-to-find novels, and large depositories of music, movies, and other media. But diving into the more insidious websites of the deep web, you’ll discover what makes it dangerous.
On the deep website Silk Road, which was the premier source of illegal and contraband drugs, users can find anything from prescription drugs such as Adderall to exotic strains of Afghani heroin. “Craziest place we ordered from was Amsterdam and that was pretty intense,” says a deep web user, identified here as HEISENBLERGH. This HEISENBLERGH used the services found on Silk Road several times, until the original site’s seizure by the FBI in 2013 and the arrest of its original system administrator, Ross Ulbricbht. To this day, HEISENBLERGH attests to the site’s effective ability to connect buyers and suppliers in international drug trade: “The quality was unheard of. To this day it was the best MDMA I’ve ever taken since American markets are flooded with dangerously cut product.”
Ordering drugs through Silk Road was as simple as ordering a product through Amazon, according to HEISENBLERGH: “I knew someone who lived in the dorms at [redacted], and they had it shipped to their dorm mailbox no problem… timing tended to vary. Sometimes it would come in as little as two weeks [domestic], but it did take up to a month when receiving shipments from Europe.”
While praising the site’s ease of use, HEISENBLERGH was uncomfortable with some of Silk Road’s darker services: “While it was easy to obtain what I was after (in my case just some pure MDMA and psychedelics, fairly low-key stuff), I definitely do not support the human trafficking/ordering hits/weapons aspect.” A critical outcome of Silk Road’s success has been a boom of drug-commerce startups on the deep web but also a branch into more threatening markets. Despite its closure, Silk Road’s success has spawned hundreds of deep web drug markets, weapons exchanges, and prostitution services, all beyond the services that HEISENBLERGH enjoyed on Silk Road: “Recreational drugs is one thing, but death-dealing is another entirely.”
“Anything you want, from weed to plutonium.” — HEISENBLERGH
On the deep website The Armory, which Gizmodo reporter Sam Biddle expertly covered in 2012, users could buy illegal firearms and explosives shipped from all over the world. In one scenario, online gun-runners messaged Mr. Biddle, vying for his potential business, offering deals on dozens of assault rifles for a hypothetical terrorist group Mr. Biddle pretended to represent.
These sites have elicited the scorn of law enforcement and policymakers, who have been historically slow to effectively monitor deep web activity due to its hidden nature. But things are starting to change. The FBI and U.S. Justice Department have been leading the charge in what deep web users call “an assault” on their online activity. The largest coordinated seizure of deep websites, dubbed Operation Onymous, successfully targeted website administrators in sixteen countries, all of whom were selling illegal contraband over the deep web. Chief among these administrators was Blake Benthall, arrested in San Francisco. Benthall, a former SpaceX engineer, has been charged for drug tracking due to his ownership of Silk Road 2.0, the second iteration of Silk Road.
The time has come where so much money—as much as $8 million in transactions occurred on Silk Road 2.0, which was hardly the largest deep web commerce site—and so much government action has created a scenario where the web-using public should really know more about what the deep web is and how it works.
Intro to Tor
Tor is the central component for accessing the deep web, as well as anonymizing oneself in online communications. Tor is maintained by the Tor Foundation, which has acknowledged the educational purposes of Tor as well as the insidious applications of the Tor protocol. Despite this, Tor is a protocol that is largely funded by the U.S. Federal Government. In fact, the Department of Defense fronted 60 percent of the Tor Foundation’s budget in 2012. In addition, the first implementation of Tor was for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Tor admins are known to be transparent with their funding and insist that no interception of Tor occurs from within the protocol itself, meaning there are no backdoors through which federal operators can intercept communications. Instead, many security researchers have noticed a string of attacks and anomalies on hidden sites on the deep web in concurrence with the string of seizures and site takedowns.
Tor works by tunneling traffic to relay stations where people have set up encrypted passages to allow Tor traffic. Whereas a traditional web user may directly visit a website hosted by a traditional server, a deep web user uses the Tor Network, where a visit to a webpage may go through several relay stations on the Tor Network before delivering the page. These stations are set up by volunteers around the world who encrypt traffic before bouncing the page request to another relay station, eventually connecting the user to the server.
To use the Tor Network, one would simply need the Tor Browser, which can be downloaded from the Tor Foundation’s website. A user operates the Tor browser just as they would any other web browser; in fact, the Tor Browser itself is a derivative of the popular Firefox web browser. All traffic is automatically anonymized by means of the Tor Network. To access the deep web, a user needs to know the exact address of the website they want to go to. Deep web addresses are usually more obscure and more difficult to remember than normal domain names; for instance, Facebook’s deep website URL is facebookcorewwwi.onion, while Silk Road’s original web URL was silkroad6ownowfk.onion. Neither of these URLs can work without the use of the Tor Browser and Tor Network.
Why Dive Deep Web?
Facebook’s foray into the deep web is just one demonstration of the tech community’s support for the deep web’s potential. Some information ought to be protected. Whether it is from the National Security Agency or from an Internet Service Provider, there are some legitimate reasons for privacy. Now may be an excellent opportunity to move ordinary websites onto the deep web, purely because the regular Internet has become so busy. A simple visit to CNN.com will elicit cookies and data access from more than 50 different callback URLs, meaning your data and usage is being reported to potentially 50 separate companies profiting from your Internet usage. The more access websites give to external programs and cookies, the more likely your data could get into the wrong hands.
As the web gets more crowded, interest in moving activities onto the deep web grows. Beyond privacy concerns, a chat over the deep web can be much more secure than one conducted otherwise. The potential for legal e-commerce such as online banking and peer-to-peer transactions are also viable candidates for deep web transplants. Users could have a much more private conversation with their bank servers, leaving less potential for the traffic and data to be intercepted along the way. By any means, recent events have certainly thrown the deep web out of the shadows enough that it is time for the general public to know more about its dangers and potential benefits.
Tor and the deep web can offer stronger privacy, anonymity, and security than average web usage. Tor infrastructure is built upon a local internet, and more consumer applications happen to consider localized internet rather than globalized internet. In fact, many web applications are moving toward a more localized, personalized internet, as demonstrated by popular apps like the anonymous social media platform YikYak. Globalization will eventually end; the world wide web has connected billions. But as the growth rate in news internet users declines, we are seeing trends towards decentralization and localization; a less global internet. I believe Tor has a part to play in securing a decentralized Internet and creating a stronger, safer way to connect.