I recently watched Deep Web: The Hunt for Dread Pirate Roberts, which is based on real life events about the creator of the underground black-market website Silk Road. Prior to this documentary I was unfamiliar with the deep and the dark web and little to my knowledge there is a whole field of research dedicated towards the illegal activities happening in what is known as the darknet. In general, the darknet tends to be portrayed by the media as a space wherein criminal activities take place, even to the extent of expressing criminogenic desires. Criminal activities may vary from anonymous trading of illegal goods such as drugs via cryptocurrencies, trading weapons and, exotic animals. Illicit activities are made easier for users due to the features of the darknet, including anonymous browsing, cryptocurrencies and virtual markets and as such, the last few years the darknet has become one of the most discussed topics in cyber security circles. According to Rand, data collected from January 2016 has shown the total drug revenues made on the darknet which, were estimated between 12-21.1 million dollars.
In the following section I will discuss the common questions I faced researching the dark web.
WHAT ARE THE THREE TYPES OF WEB
WORLD WIDE WEB
The surface web is what the majority of people access on a daily basis, it is the internet that consists of all the websites that could be searched on Google. Other examples include Amazon for online shopping and Spotify for listening to music. The surface web can be described as the tip of the iceberg, where it seen by everyone.
Websites on the surface web are stored as HTML files with fixed content unchangeable anytime anyone wants to access it that is available to everyone. Unlike the dark web in which, access is only guaranteed among trusted peers that are required to be part of the hidden network.
The submerged part of the iceberg is known as the deep web, which is hidden from some conventional searches like google as such, it requires specific software’s to gain access to personal records.
The dark web is a subset of the deep web, but it completely and intentionally hides your identity and location. The dark web also requires specific software’s to access it which is explained more below.
It is important to note that, while law enforcement and the media portray the dark web and TOR as a place for criminal activities, it is largely used for good by government agencies, journalists and dissidents around the world.
HOW DOES THE DARK WEB WORK
The dark web functions differently than the surface web, websites on the dark web are mostly in a continuous change of servers, meaning links can lead to different things at different times. The darknet also operates on networks made between trusted peers that are required to be part of the hidden network.
To access these hidden networks users, have to download specific software’s such as I2P, Freenet and TOR project.
WHAT IS TOR
TOR stands for the onion routing project; it was developed in the 1990s by the US Naval Research Lab with the purpose of protecting US intelligence communications online so enemies could not detect a ship’s position while, nowadays it’s an open source and publicly funded where the vast majority of people use it to access the dark web. Tor was originally designed to stop people, government agencies and corporations from gaining access or learning about individual’s location or browsing habits. Tor ensures privacy and anonymity between users through offering the technology of directing internet users and websites’ traffic through relays, which sends computer messages through at least 3-4 separate computer servers to hide the identity and location of its users.
WHO USES TOR
Tor is also used by military professionals, the US navy is still a prime user as well as activists from countries with strict censorship of the internet and media for example, reporters without borders journalists are advised to use Tor to safeguard their identity and keep away from government control. Creators of Tor point to the wider group of legitimate users including activists, journalists, law enforcement and professionals, however it has been largely accused of facilitating a dangerous dark web of paedophiles. According to the the Guardian Tor users has grown from 500,000 to more than 4 million user’s daily users worldwide.
While many illegal activities are taking place through the usage of Tor software it is the same software used by the police or investigative agencies to go undercover and question websites and services.
DARK SIDE OF TOR
The hidden identity of Tor users’ marks for an attractive and powerful weapon used by criminals. Moreover, individuals are careless with their actions as there are no consequences traced back to them due to the dark web element of anonymity. The buying and selling of illegal drugs, weapons, forged documents, stolen identities and contract killing are all made available on the dark web. One of the most famous darknet website is the Silk Road – was said to promote decentralisation of governments and socio-political movements against law enforcement agencies.
SILK ROAD WEBSITE
The silk road was an online platform used for the selling of illegal drugs, fake passports and other documents as well as, provide illegal services such as computer hackers, hit men and forgers. The Silk Road was operated by Tor.
The Silk Road website also known as the Amazon of the darknet nearly linked over 4,000 drug dealers to more than 100,000 buyers around the world. According to Forbes the Silk Road annual revenue estimate hit 30 million to 45 million.
Users were mainly seeking the buying and selling of drugs, forged documents and weapons. Commissions are taken through bitcoins, which have appreciated against the dollar since Silk Road launched in 2011, Ross Ulbrict and other stakeholders were accumulating millions in profit.
The use of the bitcoin was vital against the state’s war on drugs. Unlike other currencies, the integrity of nearly one billion dollars’ worth of bitcoins floating around the internet is maintained by the distributed computing power of thousands users who run the crypto-currency’s software not by any bank. As such, users never have to link or tie their accounts to their real identity and as a result the bitcoin was highly essential within the dark web. It was very difficult for FBI to trace the money due to the bitcoin complexity and lack of central authority.
The creator of the website Ross Ulbrict a libertarian, had the idea of a change in the power structure between individuals and the state. Forbes quoted Ulbrict saying “the silk road is not just about scoring drugs, it is about standing up to our rights as human beings and returning the power to us rather than state”.
HOW DID THE FBI BRING DOWN THE WEBSITE
In October 2013 the FBI shut down the Silk Road website and in November 2014 Silk Road 2.0 was also shut down. Ross Ulbrict was convicted of many crimes such as, money laundering, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, fraudulent identity documents and computer hacking by the means of the internet.
It is not clear how did the FBI locate the Silk Road server and manage to penetrate through their system. Jerry Brito a researcher at the George Mason University says, the FBI bypassed the website security through the weakness in Ulbrict computer code as such hacking into the site and issuing computer commands allowing them to act as the site administrator and talk to the server.
THE END OF SILK ROAD
A dead dream. What was once a trusted trading ground on the internet where government laws and drugs wars could never reach is now dream that has died.