Published on November 19, 2012 | by Chloe Spencer


Don’t get caught in the deep dark web

A screen shot of the website, Silk Road, showing buying options for drugs

Users of Silk Road are able to buy drugs anonymously [Silk Road]

Chances are that you will have heard stories about a hidden part of the internet, invisible to regular search engines where you can buy drugs, guns and even people.

It has been named the “deep web” or the “dark internet”, and, due to the complete anonymity of its users, it has become a breeding ground for illegal activity.

Once inside, a simple click is all it takes for you to purchase anything from a free LOVEFiLM account to 50g of pure Afghan heroin. Many of the dealers that use sites like Silk Road – the equivalent to Amazon for anybody looking to buy a machine gun and other questionable products – advertise “next day delivery” straight to your door.

The deep web is relatively easy to access by a global network of users who believe that the internet should operate beyond the regulation of the law.

To find these websites, users can download a free program called Tor – The Onion Router – that allows access to the hidden network inside the deep web. But why would somebody create this when it is almost inevitable that it will not be used for good?

Andrew Lewman, head of the Tor project, argued that Tor is “used for good by millions of people every day,” adding “the press only focuses on the negative uses of technology, not the 99 per cent positive uses.”

Tor enables the individual to anonymously browse the depths of the Tor network by bouncing its traffic between different servers from all over the world. Before searching, users are prompted to click a button on the homepage that says “use a new identity.” This provides them with a completely new IP address, making it near enough impossible to trace the identity of the user.

“The press only focuses on the negative uses of technology, not the 99 per cent positive uses.” Andrew Leman

The Tor website states that, by using the software, you are protecting your privacy and defending yourself against network surveillance and traffic analysis.

However, some of the websites that the search engine allows the user to find are highly illegal and extremely disturbing. One of the main problems that the authorities are dealing with – aside from the sale of drugs and weaponry – is a high number of child pornography chat rooms.  These are unregulated sites in which users can share photographs and fantasies anonymously online.

Lewman says: “These sites are accessible without Tor, too. We don’t make anything accessible. We conduct research and write software. How people use it is up to them.” And he points out that no-one takes luxury car makers to task if their products are used in bank robberies, human trafficking and kidnapping.”


The websites themselves are also designed so that search engines do not pick them up. In order to access onion sites like Silk Road and the somewhat more sinister Black Market Reloaded, users need to know the exact URL of the website ending in ‘.onion’ or use one of the available gateway sites. Unsurprisingly, many of these URLs can be found on forums like Yahoo Answers and The Student Room, making it very easy to gain access to the online market.

But, once on to the hidden network, what can you actually buy and what kind of websites are you likely to come across?

Silk Road appears to be one of the most regularly used and well known websites that allows people to advertise the products they are selling. It acts almost the same way that sites like Amazon and eBay do and, aside from the casual cocaine dealers and identity thieves, it also accommodates the sale of books, art, DVDs and clothes.

Silk Road, much like any other website, asks users to register before access to the network is granted. This involves filling out a registration form, creating a username, password, PIN, and stating your location so that search results are filtered to match delivery options in your area.

The homepage is as you would expect; adverts for a selection of illegal products with eBay style images are spread across the page. The language is not subtle either: ‘DRUGS’, ‘EROTICA’, ‘GUNS’, ‘EXPLOSIVES’. There is also a page named ‘LOTTERY AND GAMES’ that allows dealers to conduct a raffle in which users can pay a small fee to enter and win prizes. One prize, titled ‘A great night’, included two grams of ketamine, three LSD tabs and four valium.

“I’m not scared of getting caught because if the police found it I would just say I had no idea who had sent it to me.” Alex

Alex, a student from London, has been regularly using Silk Road for six months: “I would say 75 per cent of the time the things you order arrive when they should. I’m not scared of getting caught because if the police found it I would just say I had no idea who had sent it to me. There’s no proof of purchase anywhere. It’s easy.”

It is simple to see the appeal of Silk Road. You can buy anything you want and for many it probably seems a lot safer than wandering the streets of shady estates trying to buy cannabis.

However, the adverts for cocaine seem trivial compared to some of the more ominous services on offer. For a mere $20,000 a few sites claim that, providing they have a recent photograph, a name and a location, they will carry out an assassination on a person of your choice. It has to be a civilian though; political killings will cost you much more, and they have a strict ‘no minors’ policy.

A pile of cash and coins

It is possible to swap real money for online cash to make transactions less traceable. [Flickr]

Possibly the most confusing aspect of the dark web is the use of Bitcoins. This is an electronic currency used online which enables the user to purchase products anonymously. Though the Bitcoin network is very much a public one, it can be extremely difficult to trace the real identity of the user as the transaction is made through their online alias. There are several ways to acquire Bitcoins, including online services that switch real money into the online currency.

Alex explained: “Bitcoins do seem confusing at first, but once you start changing them over it gets a lot easier to use.”  The exchange rate for Bitcoins fluctuates daily but in August 2012 one Bitcoin worked out to be worth around $10 USD.  This means that drug dealers on sites like Silk Road are selling their products at around the average street price per gram, if not slightly more.

Ryan, a graphics intern from London, explained a risky alternative if users are struggling with Bitcoins: “I went on to Silk Road and scouted out a vendor with a lot of positive feedback and previous transactions and then sent my money in cash by post.

“They have to change it into Bitcoins themselves. You do have to trust that you’re not getting scammed but they have rating systems to make sure things like that don’t happen. My parcel arrived pretty quickly. Sometimes it is more expensive than buying it off the street but it’s usually better quality.”

“You do have to trust that you’re not getting scammed but they have rating systems to make sure things like that don’t happen.” Ryan

It all seems very effortless; Silk Road even encourages users to use their own names when ordering products. If prosecuted, they say a fake name will “hugely diminish the chances of the individual being able to deny all knowledge of the transaction.”

A program called PGP allows users to send their delivery address in encrypted form so only the vendor selling the item can read it.  For added security, the individual is provided with a “vendors’ key” which means that users can further encrypt information themselves, so much so that even the website cannot access the address given. Once the transaction is complete, all private information is deleted and lost within the abyss of the Tor network forever.

Cracking down

The Government are very aware of the existence of the ‘deep web’. However, due to the intricacy of its design, they seem to be struggling to tackle the large amount of crime concealed within the dark net.

An anonymous administrator of Silk Road released a statement last year regarding the FBI’s promise to crack down on the trading of illegal products online. It said: “We will be diverting even more effort into countering their attacks and making the site as resilient as possible, I’m sure this news will scare some off but, should we win the fight, a new era will be born. Even if we lose, the genie is out of the bottle and they are fighting a losing war already.”

In August 2012 Silk Road closed down its armory due to a “lack of use.” It claimed that not enough people were trading in weaponry to cover the server costs.  Maybe users had taken their business elsewhere. Or maybe the gap in the market for your everyday hand grenade and friendly neighbourhood automatic has been exaggerated somewhat.

Either way, law enforcement agencies like the Metropolitan Police E-Crime unit in London and the Drug Enforcement Administration in America are beginning to investigate the illegal activity that takes place within the protection of the deep web.

Much of the most disturbing content resides within hidden forums where paedophiles are free to converse with one another and swap children pornography.

“[Tor] works with the law enforcement to educate them.” Andrew Leman

However, the police are beginning to tackle these particular sites with the help of the Tor project itself.  Andrew Lewman explains that Tor “works with the law enforcement to educate them. The Tor project is also happy to work with everyone including law enforcement groups to train them in how to use the Tor software to safely conduct investigations or anonymous activities online.”

Arguably, online anonymity can be beneficial when used in the right ways. Whistle blowers provide a good example as to why online anonymity can be a positive thing. It has been said that the hidden domain has been used to aid political activists in concealing their identity, especially when living in countries with oppressive governments.  Some even claim to have used the deep web to organise several of the Arab Spring protests.

As shocking as a lot of the content might be, the deep web itself is not a hub of criminality. To find these websites you do have to go looking for them; the preconception that by downloading Tor you are then going to be bombarded with adverts for drugs and pornography is wrong.

Granted, some of the content available within the dark web is sinister and no doubt illegal. But the internet is near impossible to regulate. It seems inevitable that if you can step out of the front door and buy two grams of MDMA, walk into any shop in America and buy a gun, or rummage through household waste and steal somebody’s identity, you could do it online.


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