The Deep Dark Web

You just watched a movie and the heroin was involved in searching the “Darknet” to find the source for the exotic weapons used by the bad guys. So, you ask yourself, “What is the ‘Darknet?’” It wasn’t all that long ago, (oh, maybe it was, at that and it just seems like that to this author) that the CompuServe forums were where the mystery lay.[i] So why should you care about the Darknet, Deep Web or Dark Web? Maybe you should not care, and maybe you will never need to know, if your sole contacts with the Internet are exchanging e-mail and checking out The Drudge Report or the Huffington Post. On the other hand, if you are simply curious, maybe concerned with the possibility that your children, who are tech-savy, may stumble or intentionally seek out web sites that are not on your “safe” list, or have a client who has been charged with obtaining illegal drugs through the Internet, and you need to understand how this occurred to assist in your client’s defense, then you may care about the “Darknet.”

First, it is good to provide a little background about the Internet. The Internet is more than the World Wide Web, Google and Facebook. The Internet is a world-wide network of computer networks and the infrastructure supporting that network. Think your office computer network multiplied by millions of similar networks, all connected to each other. The easiest analogy, to those over a certain age, is the telephone system, which connects telephones to each other world-wide. In fact, the Internet uses the wiring system which carries telephone communications to connect the myriad of networks to each other. Cable, fiber optic, cellular and satellite technology are also part of the Internet’s infrastructure. The “Internet” is the all inclusive network in which any computer can communicate with any other computer as long as they are both connected to the Internet. The World Wide Web, (“WWW” or “Web”), is a way of accessing information on the Internet. It is graphically based. Prior to the Web, access to information on the Internet was obtained on a hit or miss basis, requiring connections to the computer system directly with knowledge to navigate the system’s structure. Each system had its own index. The “user” [ii] had to learn to navigate each site without a common system or “overlay,” such as the Netscape web browser[iii] and Google search engine. The World Wide Web resulted in the development of the browsers and search engines making the “Surface Web” accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

The Surface Web is that part of the Internet that is visible with common search engines. It is estimated that the information which comprises the Surface Web only amounts to an estimated 4% of the total of all Internet data. The remaining information on the Internet, comprising anywhere from 80% to 96%, probably more, is located in the Deep Web[iv]. The Deep Web may be defined as that part of the World Wide Web not indexed by traditional search engines. It is comprised of the content of databases and other web services that for one reason or another cannot be indexed by conventional search engines, e.g., Google, Bing etc. Think academia, personal banking information and the like. You can’t use Google to search for “Clark Kent’s Bank Account at First Bank of Smallville” and find Superman’s account. If that account does exist, it is “username” and password protected. The First State Bank of Smallville may provide for on-line access to its customer accounts, but, all of the account information is “hidden,” and therefore, it is located on the “Deep Web.”

The “Dark Web” is a small part of the Deep Web. “Darknet” is another term seen quite often in the research for this article. Note, that a darknet (lower case “d”) is defined by Wikipedia[v] as: “A darknet (or dark net) is an overlay network that can only be accessed with specific software, configurations, or authorization, often using non-standard communications protocols and ports. Two typical darknet types are friend-to-friend networks (usually used for file sharing with a peer-to-peer connection) and privacy networks such as Tor.”

The reciprocal term for an encrypted “darknet” is “Clearnet” or “surface web” when referring to search engine indexable content.” Thus, “dark nets” are a part of the “Dark Net,” but only part of it.

Are you confused yet? So is this author. Basically, it seems that there are many “dark nets” in the “Dark Web.” The Dark Web is the overlay which provides ability to search for various “dark nets.” Anyway, for this article, please ignore all of this gobbledygook and treat “Darknet,” “dark net” and “Dark Web” as synonymous. The Dark Web is becoming prominent in TV and Movie plots. This is the part of the Internet where you must fear to tread. Dark Web and Deep Web terms are often confused. Basically, the Internet is composed of three parts, the “Surface Net,” which is part of the World Wide Web and accessible via Google etc., the “Deep Web” which includes all of the rest of the Internet which is not so accessible, and the “Dark Web” which is a part of the Deep Web, but contains information only accessible with specialized tools, such as Tor[vi], and which contains information and markets including an “underground” marketplace.

According to www.Lexology.com: “The most popular items sold on these underground marketplaces are drugs – both illicit drugs (e.g., heroin, methamphetamines and cocaine) and prescription pharmaceuticals. Personal account and financial information is traded. Pirated content is distributed. Counterfeit goods are sold openly, often in massive quantities. Think of something illegal and it is most likely available on darknet marketplaces. The threats to intellectual property are wide and varied.” Additionally, allegedly, the Dark Web is a place where one can buy a hit man for $45,000 for a “low ranking individual,” or “$180,000 for a high ranking individual.”[vii] See the below discussion about the arrest of Ross Ulbricht.

How is law enforcement doing against illegal activities on the Dark Web? There has been at least one trial and verdict as a result of the prosecution of Ross Ulbricht who ran the Dark Web marketplace known as “The Silk Road,” under the non de plume, “Dread Pirate Roberts.”[viii] According to the trial as reported in an The Economist article, “This was the first website to make it possible to buy and sell illegal drugs online openly and with relative anonymity.” Mr. Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Ulbricht was also accused by prosecutors of “commissioning six murders-for-hire but those charges were dropped and there is no evidence that these murders were ever carried out.”[ix] Whether “Dread Pirate Roberts” sought the purchase of the hits on the Dark Web isn’t clear. Note that the medium of exchange for The Silk Road was “bitcoin.” “Bitcoin” could be the subject on an entire article, but simply think of it (“simply?”) as “digital currency.”

To access the Dark Web, one needs to download “Tor.” “Tor” stands for “The Onion Router.” Tor sites URLs (“Uniform Resource Locater” or simply a site’s web name) end with the designation “.onion.”

What Tor does is to enable anonymous communication. Again, according to Wikipedia: “Tor directs Internet traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer network consisting of more than seven thousand relays to conceal a user’s location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis. Using Tor makes it more difficult for Internet activity to be traced back to the user: this includes “visits to Web sites, online posts, instant messages, and other communication forms”. Tor’s use is intended to protect the personal privacy of users, as well as their freedom and ability to conduct confidential communication by keeping their Internet activities from being monitored.”[x] In other words, Tor allegedly allows the visitors to the Dark Web to remain anonymous. “Allegedly” is the operative word. NSA and various law enforcement agencies are making inroads on breaking the anonymity provided by Tor.[xi]

As reported in Rolling Stone¸ and, shortly later in Newsweek, the FBI announced what it termed was a major victory against on-line crime. After an 18 month investigation, 70 people worldwide were charged, arrested or searched in “Operation Shrouded Horizon.” The crimes alleged included wire fraud, money laundering and conspiring to commit computer fraud. “The trail of crimes was massive, with one member compromising companies including Microsoft and Sony and another swiping data from more than 20 million victims.”[xii] And, yet, only two weeks after the announcement, “Sp3cial1st,” the main administrator of Darkode,[xiii] posted on a new web site that most of its staff, including its senior staff, survived the government’s shutdown efforts, and those arrested were either retired or only recently added individuals.

While law enforcement has made some inroads into the illegal activities which operate on the Dark Web, including the take down of the “Silk Road” site, the battle continues. In November, 2014, the European police agency Europol along with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security announced the takedown of the drug marketing sites, Silk Road 2, Cloud 9 and Hydra.[xiv] So, while Silk Road was down once, it was up again, and maybe, again as “Silk Road 2”, and later, after Silk Road 2 was taken down, as “Silk Road Reloaded.” Further arrests and prosecutions have occurred as a result of the law enforcement activities involving the Dark Web. Wikipedia reports,[xv] “Dutch drug dealer 23-year-old Cornelis Jan “Maikel” Slomp[xvi] was found guilty for large scale selling of drugs through the Silk Road website and was sentenced in Chicago to 10 years in prison on 29 May 2015.  Dealer Steven Sadler was sentenced to five years in prison.”

Interestingly, Tor has been a tool for good, too. “Originally designed by the Naval Research Lab, Tor receives 60 percent of its backing from the State Department and the Department of Defense to act as a secure network for government agencies as well as dissidents fighting oppressive regimes.”[xvii] PC World has published some more on the “Bright Side of the Darknet,” as part of its article, “Meet Darknet, the hidden, anonymous underbelly of the searchable Web.” [xviii] For example, PC World mentions that The New Yorker magazine uses a Tor hidden services site called, Strongbox, to allow whistleblowers to securely and anonymously communicate with the magazine.

Okay, what are some actual Dark Web sites accessible through Tor or other tools? For an interesting, and more comprehensive list, see, http://the-hidden-wiki.com/. Some of those sites which are scary, to say the least, are listed on the-hidden-wiki.com under “Marketplace”:

Other sites are listed by category, and will not be delineated here. However, here are some of the-hidden-wiki.com categories to provide a sample:

  • Introduction points, forums, links, search engines, information, chat, personal blogs”normal sites”
  • Tech, technology, computers, hackers for hire, hacking/anarchy related materials
  • Porn, Erotica
  • Political, activists, groups, journalism, whistle blowing etc.
  • Anonymity, Security
  • Hosting, web, file, image
  • Just dont know what this is exactly.  Weird stuff.

If the foregoing discussion of the parts of the Internet are confusing to the reader, Deep Web Technologies, Inc, provides graphs and pictorials which summarize pretty well the foregoing at www.deepwebtech.com. The charts graphically describe the “Surface Web,” “Deep Web” and “Dark Web” as they relate to each other. The following is one of the charts from that site (note the iceberg analogy):

deep dark web

© Deep Web Technologies, Inc.

 

Would the author EVER visit the Dark Web? Frankly, it is a frightening prospect, especially since merely searching the Dark Web may give rise to some sort of law enforcement or agency tracking of the user’s search history. This is a might paranoid, one might say. But, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. The research for this article was all available on the Surface Web. It is doubtful that the on-line research for this article will result in arousing the interest of any tracking agency, such as the NSA, or law enforcement, such as the FBI.

So, how does an intrepid and fearless explorer roam freely in the Dark Web? One must download the software which allows the user to access the dark places which reside on the Dark Web. The necessary application is Tor, which is free to download. Note that this author has not and will not do so. However, if the reader is interested in exploring the subject of this article further, by actually visiting the “Dark Web,” an article in PC Advisor[xix] recommends some precautions one should take if he or she is going to explore the mysterious part of the Internet. “Other precautions include placing duct tape on your webcam, enabling your computer’s firewall, and turning off cookies and JavaScript. Again, here is where you want to be completely free of an identity, so treading cautiously is key. The NSA and other government outlets peruse the Dark Web and onion sites frequently using cross-reference tools, malware, and remote administration tools to de-anonymize users engaging in illegal activity.” In other words, “buyer, beware.” Probably the best option is to not go there to begin with.

Notwithstanding the foregoing warning, PC Advisor does go on to say: “While the Deep Web houses the retail of weapons, drugs, and illicit erotica, there are also useful tools for journalists, researchers, or thrill seekers.”[xx] And, yet a further warning is provided by PC Advisor: “It’s also worth noting that mere access through Tor is not illegal but can arouse suspicion with the law. Illegal transactions usually begin on the Deep Web but those transactions quite often head elsewhere for retail, private dialoguing, or in-person meetups; that’s how most people get caught by law enforcement officials.”[xxi]

In summary, while so much of the Internet lies below the surface, and, some of the most interesting, if not dangerous, information is located in the Dark Web, maybe, as opposed to immediately downloading Tor after reading this article and exploring the dark underbelly of the Internet, the reader should first do some research on the Surface Web. There is a wealth of information available with standard “Google” searches, which will provide an overview of what is lurking beneath the surface. For example, there is at least one YouTube video (link not provided) which displays 15 rather disgusting Dark Web sites. It is unlikely that there is any possibility that a law enforcement investigation will result following such research. There is no guaranty that such an investigation will not result for actual surfing of the Dark Web using Tor or other applications designed for such purpose.

[i] Yes, “CompuServe” forums which the author investigated circa 1990 after purchasing the CompuServe box in the B. Dalton bookstore in the Centrum Mall in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska. The author was genuinely interested in the law practice forums and forums “dedicated” to tips and tricks for using the popular WordPerfect word processing software. The author was quite surprised to find that the legal forums were basically early on-line dating sites. Maybe this was the precursor to the Dark Web. Together with a 300 Baud modem attached to my PC Junior and the CompuServe software and account, the author thought he was light years ahead of his peers.

[ii] “User” in this context is the person sitting at a computer monitor attempting to access information on the Internet.

[iii] And later, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Google’s Chrome.

[iv] Other sources estimate that there are 550 billion individual documents on the Deep Web compared to only one billion on the Surface Web. See www.brightplanet.com.

[v] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darknet.

[vi] According to WikipediA, “Tor is free software for enabling anonymous communication. The name is an acronym derived from the original software project name The Onion Router.” The name has been changed to only capitalize only the first letter.

[vii] See http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/23/from-drugs-to-killers-exploring-the-deep-web.html.

[viii] http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21639525-one-dread-pirate-trial-what-about-others-bitcoin-buccaneers.   Mr. Ulbricht was charged with money laundering, racketeering and other related charges.

[ix] http://money.cnn.com/2015/05/29/technology/silk-road-ross-ulbricht-prison-sentence/index.html.

[x] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tor_%28anonymity_network%29.

[xi] “The NSA and other intelligence agencies could “benefit from analyzing customer web data to look for connections to non-standard domains,” Chertoff wrote. In other words, he’s suggesting that if security agencies can tell people are going somewhere on the dark web, they can make inferences from it. “This can be done without intruding on users’ privacy as only the destinations of the web requests need to be monitored and not who is connecting to them” he wrote, which seems like wishful thinking.”   See, http://motherboard.vice.com/read/six-ways-law-enforcement-monitors-the-dark-web.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] According to Wikipedia, “dark0de (aka Darkode) is a cybercrime forum and black marketplace described by Europol as “the most prolific English-speaking cybercriminal forum to date”.  The site, which launched in 2007, serves as a venue for the sale and trade of hacking services, botnets, malware and other illicit goods and services.”

[xiv] See, Wired, November 7, 2014, http://www.wired.com/2014/11/operation-onymous-dark-web-arrests/.

[xv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road_(marketplace)#Other_trials.

[xvi] For a picture of and more detailed article about Mr. Slomp, see, https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/biggest-drug-dealer-internet-sentenced-135816148.html.   He blamed his troubles on the Internet, saying, “I don’t think any of this could have happened without the anonymity of the Internet.”

[xvii] Wired,Id.

[xviii] http://www.pcworld.com/article/2046227/meet-darknet-the-hidden-anonymous-underbelly-of-the-searchable-web.html.

[xix] At http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/how-to/internet/what-is-dark-web-how-access-dark-web-deep-joc-3593569/

which provides a roadmap to downloading Tor.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id.

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