Dec 17, 2012

The Deep Web



Tommy Gavin | The University Times Magazine Editor

The words “Deep Web” conjure up some kind of secret hacker section of the internet, no doubt accessed through a “back door” left in the system by the lord of computers. Once you’ve accessed this covert part of the ‘net, the implication is that invitations to clubs filed with industrial-metal and rollerblading would start flying in. It suggests a world of secrecy and intrigue, a specialist knowledge beyond the reach of most of us form whom computer means “facebook and youtube machine.”

Perhaps Derren Brown is partially to blame for this, at least for me he is, for having pretended to accurately predict the lottery using “deep maths.” It if is totally incoherent and doesn’t make sense, you just don’t understand it because it is “deep.” Sadly, this whimsical interpretation of the word does not apply to the Deep Web.

Mundanely, the deep web just refers to content on the web that isn’t accessible through search engines like Google. Anything protected by a password, or part of a catalogue counts as the Deep Web. Try doing a google search that throws up the result:;jsessionid=50014BB61ED4C7B6F33FCA661B012648?lang=eng&suite=cobalt

Basically, the so-called surface web is like if you were going to your friend’s house but you didn’t know the address, you could look it up on facebook or the yellow pages, and you’d be able to find it. If your house was on the deep web, in this admittedly muddled analogy, I would need you to tell me the address if I wanted to find it. What’s so interesting about the Deep Web then? Follow the White Rabbit, swallow the red pill, check out the pool on the roof.

Where there is darkness; there is secrecy, and where there is secrecy; there is intrigue. Hidden on the Deep Web is everything that would want to remain, if not secret, then anonymous. Everything from posts by political dissidents in countries with repressive regimes, to international black markets, as well as the darkest shit you can imagine.

The gateway to this is the TOR network. An acronym for “The Onion Router”, TOR is a system for anonymous internet browsing, by encrypting and re-encrypting multiple times through different relays, in layers (like some kind of vegetable or something). It prevents anyone watching your internet connection from learning what sites you visit, and also prevents the sites you visit from learning your location. It’s comprised of two parts; software you have to download to allow you to browse anonymously, and the volunteer network of computers that makes it possible for the software to work.

It would be dishonest to suggest it requires any kind of technical proficiency to use The Onion Router. Setting it up is easy enough, it really just involves downloading a package, and clicking “run browser.” I’m by no means encouraging anyone to break the law, but TOR itself isn’t illegal, in fact, the patent is held by the US Navy. It was designed, implemented and deployed by the US Naval Research Laboratory to protect US governmental communications. In the same way that the US Air Force found it cheaper to just buy 1,760 Playstation 3’s and hook them together to build a supercomputer rather than building one from scratch, and how civilian drone technology is on par with military, much of the internet technology (TOR for example) available to government and law enforcement is available to the average internet user also.

There are generally two different kinds of people who use TOR: criminals and non-criminals. The latter includes activists, journalists, civil rights aficionados and the frankly paranoid. The former ranges from the innocuous small time cannabis dealer to the most morally repugnant predators imaginable.

The kosher applications in part validate the argument in favour of the moral neutrality of TOR. Journalists use it to communicate with sources, NGO’s use it to communicate with their home website without letting it be known, and corporations use it to protect themselves from corporate espionage. Even law enforcement use it for surveilling websites without leaving government registered IP addresses in their web logs. Ironically, it is partially the diversity of its users that makes it so secure, for the legitimate and disreputable alike.

The nefarious utility of the Deep Web is limited only by the criminal imagination. There are black markets in every commodity conceivable, if you have the will, or indeed the stomach, to find them. For the purpose of this article, I browsed two of the most well-known black markets, though should mention that I made no purchases, and was left with a deep sense of dread.

Perhaps the most famous online black market on the Deep Web is “The Silk Road”, named for the famous trade route. A techno-libertarian’s wet dream, it already made the international news rounds, so there is nothing groundbreaking in talking about it here. They recently stopped vendors from selling firearms or anything that could potentially be used to hurt people, if only because it is bad for business: “anything who’s purpose is to harm or defraud, such as stolen credit cards, assassinations, and weapons of mass destruction.” Anonymous vendors display their wares to anonymous customers, who place orders and pay with near-untraceable Bitcoins. It works on a reputation basis, and too many bad reviews, on either side, gets you blacklisted from the market. It seems to work very efficiently, and has been running for over three years.

One of the reasons the site can operate with impunity is because the preferred currency is the Bitcoin, another indispensable service to the anonymous web user of distinction. Not reliant on a bank or government, Bitcoin uses a log across a peer-to-peer system, run by the people who use it. They are mathematically derived valued function that supposedly can’t be stolen because the user is embedded in the function from which they were derived. To generate them, you download a Bitcoin software client, which generates 36 character addresses or accounts to receive Bitcoin payments. The currency is stored on your computer in a “wallet” and you can send them to the wallets of others. The sender’s computer sends the information to the network, which validates the transaction. Due to the fact that the only information identifying a user is the Bitcoin address, the transaction is almost anonymous (though the transactions are recorded in a public log, so law enforcement could in theory use network analysis techniques to track down individual users).

The Silk Road deals mostly in drugs of every kind; Cannabis, MDMA, LSD, DMT, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and everything in between. I think the more interesting wares are the more miscellaneous ones though. For €13,000, you can buy a UK passport which will work when scanned. For around €100,000 you can buy a former UK Ministry of Defence armour plated land rover, complete with armour plating and anti-personnel mine protection. It is easy enough to imagine who is selling drugs, how, and why. Having seen The Wire, I safely consider myself an expert. Who though is selling UK passports with the ability to input new identities into the system? Where did this Land Rover come from? I imagine it must be an invigorating feeling to buy an armoured 4×4 on a black market on the internet, but more importantly, who is selling a Gulf Stream III jet, and why do they have a Gulf Stream III? It’s like the terrorist bazaar cold-opener in Goldeneye, but without that pesky 007 character swinging digs and chucking exploding lighters around.

There was another online black market I perused that is well known but whose name I won’t divulge, and it was much less whimsical. It also dealt in drugs of every size, shape and colour, but here the “no harm” principle was not in effect, and I was confronted with the bleak and depressing potential of the deep web, in albeit a superficial way. That was because the Black Market Reloaded also deals in tools for exploitation like ATM skimmers and credit card numbers, and more alarmingly, small arms. Pistols, rifles, explosives are all for sale on this Deep Web site, all with the same cheerful reviews, and product descriptions like “for the serious professional.” One merchant offered for sale a letter-bomb sent to the home of the intended target, and one of the conditions was that he must be made aware of the reason for sending it, as if that in some way made him less of a terrifying scumbag. I can see how someone used to purchasing off these black markets could accidently, out of habit, enter their own address into the that of the intended victim, with hijinks ensuing.

That brush with the dark side of what is out there was enough to sate my curiosity though. Of course black markets exist, of course they exist on the internet, but to actually see the product and service descriptions first hand was more affecting than I thought it would be, and that is only the tip of the ice-berg when it comes to dark shit on the Deep Web. Supposedly there are real life to-the-death martial arts competitions, traders in snuff film, and I didn’t go anywhere near the child pornography side, of which there is apparently a lot. I have enough trouble sleeping as it is, thank you very much.

Ultimately, these markets have always existed, and probably always will. However, these are the wild west days of the internet, and for better or worse, the world is totally different than it was before the internet existed, or even was as prevalent as it is now. In many ways, all the old assumptions are off because the assumptions informing those assumptions are off. The typical tabloid response to the Deep Web is one of “ban this filth,” but nobody talks about banning paper to stop people printing child pornography. Even if something could be done about the anonymity and the hidden nature of the Deep Web, what would it be for? These are questions we need to think long and hard about, because things aren’t going back to the way they were.

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  • bob

    Overall, I thought this was an excellent article. I have only a couple of minor quibbles:
    1) The film you are thinking of is “Tomorrow Never Dies”, not “Goldeneye”.
    2) In the first line of the antepenultimate paragraph you refer to “another online black market I perused that is well known but whose name I won’t divulge”. You then proceed to divulge its name within the next two sentences.

    Regardless of those, this is definitely one of the better articles on the “Dark Web” from the non-technical media.

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  • Neville O’Gorman

    I eat lemons