Exploring the deep dark web

It’s the corner of the worldwide web where evil and illegality thrive. But some good does flourish on the deep web, writes Will Harvie.

The forum post was almost impossibly earnest and yet it explains in three words the dark web: Was it possible to buy ‘‘ethically sourced cocaine’’?

‘‘I would be much more comfortable buying cocaine if I knew child slaves weren’t involved,’’ wrote somebody with the handle BernsteinGnocchi.

Those three words open the door to the dark or deep web, the so-called evil corner of the worldwide web where illegal drugs (and guns, explosives, fake identities and passports, stolen property and child porn) are openly sold, paid for with ‘‘cryptocurrencies’’ and where anonymity is almost guaranteed. Yet the dark web is also a place where some good flourishes, where the Gnocchis of the world can worry about child slaves, where the United States Navy got things going with early software, where awards have been won for good work, where dissidents in China, Egypt and Iran communicate out of the sight of the totalitarians, where insiders blow whistles and victims of sex abuse and family violence communicate privately.

On the internet, it’s said, nobody knows you’re a dog. Or a faker, fraudster or befouler. Or law enforcement. Therefore the dark web is an inherently suspicious place, made worse by lurid stories about deep websites such as Silk Road. It was shut down after raids by the FBI in October after less than three years in existence. The ‘‘seething matrix of encrypted websites’’ was a sort of Trade Me of drugs and illegality, although some legit material was apparently sold there too. The founder was charged with drug trafficking, soliciting murder, facilitating computer hacking and money laundering. A successor, dubbed Silk Road 2.0, appears to be self-destructing after the digital currency at its heart was hacked or perhaps stolen by its moderator in mid-February.

The software that makes this possible is called Tor, which stands for the ‘‘The Onion Router’’. Avoiding too much jargon, it employs layers of encryption like an onion to achieve near-perfect anonymity, according to fans. Others have doubts about that. What’s agreed is that Tor was developed by the US Navy for the ‘‘primary purpose of protecting government communications’’. It has since been taken over by The Tor Project, a US-based non-profit with funding from various arms of the US and other Western governments and other donors. In 2011 the project won the Free Software Foundation’s award for projects of social benefit, a gong previously given to Creative Commons and Wikipedia.

Tor is outwardly a browser like Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome and downloadable from the project’s website, for free. After one failed effort, it took about 30 minutes to achieve. The difference is Tor gets users into deep websites, ones that never, ever show up on Google. These special websites carry the domain name .onion instead of .co.nz or  .com and require Tor to crack even their homepages. Delving deeper, especially to illicit marketplaces, depends on the dark website. Some require registration.

An open example called The Armory claims to be a ‘‘Euro-American blackmarket arms contractor’’ that sells guns, ammunition and firearm accessories. Here, find a Glock 17 pistol with an attached Gemtech Tundra suppressor on special at US$1599, down from the regular US$2223. Or pick up a Soviet AK47 (generation 3) going for US$1947, down from the usual US$2354.

‘‘We cannot guarantee that the weapon itself will be legal in your country,’’ states The Armory FAQ page. It takes only the digital currency called Bitcoins, uses an ‘‘escrow’’ service to protect payments and claims to be different than an infamous Silk Road weapon marketplace of the same name.The website says little about shipping. Having bought a gun, how does a customer get hold of it?

Shipping was the undoing of a 23-year-old Palmerston North man who bought 15 grams of methamphetamine on Silk Road and had it shipped to a New Zealand post office box in his name. Customs intercepted the package in August, let it go through and then police swooped on his family home. In December, he got two years and four months.

Alan Bell of ECPAT New Zealand knows about the porn side of the dark web. As a campaigner trying to eliminate child sexual exploitation, he says the growing problem is webcam sex – ‘‘live video streaming of children being coerced into performing sexual acts’’.

‘‘It’s a despicable industry,’’ says Bell, ‘‘It’s not part of the larger picture of adult porn. It’s child abuse, torture and rape.’’

Efforts by various Financial Coalitions Against Child Pornography – there are several – disrupted the mainstream money transfer side of child sexual exploitation.

‘‘But we didn’t end it, we just moved it,’’ Ernie Allen, president of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, told a US Senate committee in November. The perpetrators moved to the dark web and started accepting Bitcoins, he said.

So pretty dark, then. But not always so. A couple of years ago the Tor Project asked its community for ‘‘good Tor stories’’. What came back was almost entirely anonymous, of course, and remembering the internet dogs, revealing. 

One respondent claimed to be in China, where censors block access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like. ‘‘We use Tor and some other tools to get past the [Great Firewall of China] and send political sensitive topics on forums in China [sic] ,’’ wrote Anonymous. 

‘‘I’m using Tor to allow me to expose criminal activity at my company without being identified,’’ wrote another.

‘‘As an activist for transgender rights I’m frequently contacted by trans-people globally ... I frequently encourage my contacts to use Tor to protect themselves,’’ replied another.

A ‘‘citizen militia commander’’ in the US used Tor to evade eavesdropping by law enforcement. Edward Snowdon reportedly used Tor to leak some material from the National Security Agency. Choose your own definition of good and bad.

When the Tor Project won that award, the citation read: ‘‘Tor has enabled roughly 36 million people around the world to experience freedom of access and expression on the internet while keeping them in control of their privacy and anonymity. Its network has proved pivotal in dissident movements in both Iran and more recently Egypt.’’

If Tor provides access, there’s another recent development that fuels the deep web – digital currencies or cryptocurrencies, or, more simply, online cash. The best known is Bitcoin, but there are others.

The details are immediately technical; suffice it to say the money is digital, mostly anonymous, unregulated by any central bank and its value yo-yos wildly.

At the end of March 2013, one Bitcoin cost about US$90. Its value rocketed and in late November it peaked at US$1132. By mid-December, it had collapsed to US$510, by early January rebounded to US$985 and by late February fallen again to US$489. This week, it traded at about US$620. 

Gyrations like these tend to fascinate or repel. ‘‘Bitcoin is a science experiment that got out of control,’’ says Peter Gutmann of Auckland University’s computer science department.

‘‘I’ve always been interested in technologies that give people more choices,’’ says Wellington computer consultant and technology commentator Hamish MacEwan, and to him Bitcoin looks like an alternative to banks, credit card companies and other ‘‘incumbents who I don’t think are doing as good a job – given their privileges – as they ought to.’’

Like any currency, Bitcoin can buy good things and bad things, MacEwan says. ‘‘Bitcoin will appeal to people when it permits them to do something they can’t already do. In some cases, what they can’t already do will be beneficial and helpful. In some cases, it will be illegal or forbidden.’’

We’ve seen what Bitcoin can buy on the dark web. In legitimate New Zealand, Bitcoins can buy rafting tours in Otago, beer in a brew pub near Wellington, a carwash in Christchurch. On Trade Me, a seller accepts Bitcoins for doggie clothing but has yet to close a deal with the currency. Cattle handling equipment, used cars and silver bullion can all be purchased on Trade Me with Bitcoin. It turns out the seller of these last three is the same guy and he declined to speak about his transactions.

Mostly, Gutmann says, Bitcoin is ‘‘geeks selling to other geeks’’. Meet, for instance, Rob Dawson, Adam Clark and Matt Yianakis, who are cryptocurrency enthusiasts and computer coders from Christchurch. They run a small syndicate fund, much like a lottery syndicate, to ‘‘mine’’ digital currencies and spread the earnings among members.

Mining is one of the immediately technical things about digital currencies. In short, Bitcoin doesn’t simply exist, it has to be found by computers that solve incredibly difficult mathematical problems. And these problems get increasingly more difficult as time passes and more Bitcoin is found. And the harder the problems, the bigger and faster and more expensive the computers have to be to solve the problems.

As a result, the Christchurch trio don’t bother mining Bitcoin. They go for a cryptocurrency like Dogecoin,  which requires only premium graphics cards of the sort favoured by serious computer gamers. ‘‘The barriers to entry are smaller and you can trade up these crypto-coins to Bitcoins and make a reasonable living,’’ says Dawson. None are making a living yet, but earning about $1000 a month after expenses. ‘‘I’d like for it to be my job,’’ he says.

Yianakis favours Dogecoin because of the community and meme that supports it. When the Jamaican bobsled team needed cash to get to the Sochi Winter Olympics, the Dogecoin Foundation collected 27 million Dogecoins, worth more than US$30,000, in two days and donated it. Others helped the Jamaicans as well. The foundation is now fundraising to build waterwells in Kenya.

Do we need Bitcoin and other digital currencies? Auckland University’s Gutmann says no, we’ve got the serviceable New Zealand dollar and you can’t buy much with digital currencies anyway. 

‘‘It’s a replay, it’s just incredible,’’ says MacEwan. ‘‘You can take all the cautionary stories you saw about the internet in 1995 – it’s criminals, it’s porn, it’s unreliable, it’s not backed by the might of Telecom – all of that is just being repeated’’ in discussions about Bitcoins (and he would probably add, Tor).

And as for that ethical cocaine? Word is that drug dealers are middlemen who would lie about its provenance.



Internet: the wires, computers and other physical things that make up the global network.

Worldwide web: the software and content that exist on the internet. 

Dark or deep web: Often used interchangeably, as in this article. Some differentiate them. The dark web is that portion of the web that cannot be easily reached by the public. Requires specialised software such as Tor to access. The deep web is information that is not found by search engines like Google, including info that is kept in many private, corporate and governmental databases.

Tor: Originally "The Onion Router" and now just Tor. A special web browser created by the US Navy that uses layers of encryption to hide the identity of users. Websites accessible with Tor use the .onion domain name instead of .co.nz or .com.

Bitcoin: The most prominent of the digital currencies. Reportedly invented by Satoshi Nakamoto, which is a pseudonym. The value of Bitcoin fluctuates, often wildly.

Sources: Tor Project, Wikipedia



Megaupload wasn’t a dark website in the sense that a special web browser like Tor was required. It existed on the white web and the alleged crimes of Kim Dotcom, pictured, and ‘‘other members of the Mega conspiracy’’ were to knowingly facilitate copyright infringement on a truly massive scale, to summarise the FBI’s 191-page summary of evidence. They allegedly violated copyright themselves,  laundered money and so forth, but the main reason the FBI came knocking was the knowing facilitation on a massive scale.

Dotcom’s new website, mega.co.nz, attempts to get around the ‘‘knowingly’’ part by encrypting uploads before they arrive on Mega’s servers. Dotcom and his colleagues don’t have the key to decrypt the uploads – only users do – and so Mega can’t know what’s been uploaded. 

‘‘He’s trying to get around legal and political problems with technology,’’ says Peter Gutmann of Auckland University’s computer science department. The problem is that judges tend to see through that sort of thing, he says. Laws can also be amended. He’s up against the endlessly deep pockets of the entertainment industries, which won’t stop trying to stop him, says Gutmann.

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