Imagine a world where everybody is truly anonymous. A place where money cannot be traced back to its owner, but is simply a digital currency fluctuating in value every day. A land where the law is a thing of the past; simply an idea that cannot penetrate the security around the fortress. Weaponry, drugs, and confidential information is traded without a single anonymous blink of an eye. Welcome to the Deep Web, the underworld of the Internet.
In the year 2000, a “Distributed, Decentralised Information Storage and Retrieval System” was created by an Irish student, Ian Clarke. This became known as Freenet, which today is one of the most popular methods of anonymous file sharing and communication. The purpose of Freenet is simple: allow people to share and access data online without being detected. Something that may seem normal to many of us, but considering that fact that even the Freenet website is blocked in China, anonymous access to information is a privilege sought for by many but only available to some.
One of the basic ideas of anonymous networks is that information is available to people who have knowledge it exists, yet is not indexed in the mainstream public search engines such as Google. It is estimated that search engines such as Google currently index less that 0.5% of total amount of web pages available. Other estimations compute that the amount of data that is online is 500 times greater than that which is available through the public search engines. Of course, this can be explained by many things. Take a look at modern websites, the most popular being of the social networking genre. Private profiles and a public increase in privacy settings would technically mean that there is a lot of data not available to the public.
But what about that data which is available to the public. Web pages that are intended for the public to read, yet are designed to be as truly hidden and anonymous as possible? The onion network is a network of TOR (The Onion Router) hidden services, websites that are only reachable via the TOR network. TOR basically acts in such a way that your computer will connect through a wide variety of worldwide nodes, with no communication between them, allowing anonymous access to the World Wide Web. Not only does using TOR allow you access the “surface web” anonymously, but it also allows access to the “Deep Web”, the vast variety of websites not indexed by search engines.
Exploring the Deep Web is like living in a dystopian world, a real life version of The Matrix. It is an unpredictable realm of the Internet, with no centralised stucture or standards. Web pages look like they have been lifted straight from the 1990’s, using minimal dynamic content and mainly basic HTML. But it is here that thousands of people every day are taking part in illicit activities, safe in the knowledge that they will most likely never be caught due to the extreme anonymity provided to them through the TOR network, out of reach of most police forces. What started as an innocent project to provide anonymous Internet access has evolved into something much more sinister. Want to hire a hitman? He is on special offer today.
Take the popular Silk Road Marketplace for example. This is one of the Deep Web’s more popular versions of Ebay… except here, people bid for drugs. Fancy some cocaine delivered from Germany to any country in the world, with guaranteed delivery and a 100% success rate due to advanced stealth packaging techniques? No problem. Practically everything on sale in this marketplace is genuine. Many underground stores use an escrow system, and so the seller will not receive any money until the buyer releases it from the escrow after receipt of the goods and confirmation that it is indeed the genuine product. The price of 1 gram of cocaine? In this listing I looked at today, it was being sold for just over 18 bitcoins. You won’t see any pricing in dollars or pounds in the Deep Web marketplaces. Money is always traceable. Bitcoins however can be traded anonymously through networks such as Freenet or through TOR, and allow transactions to be an easy and safe process.
The value of a bitcoin? It depends. Today it is worth over $6. After Silk Road was exposed in the US Congress, the value of it rose dramatically in response to the increase in site visitor traffic. Of course, Silk Road still continues to provide an anonymous platform for drug dealers to sell their goods, even though Congress has asked the DEA to shut it down. As you may have assumed by now, it is not so easy for the DEA to shut down a site that is virtually impossible to trace. In this instance, to “take down” a website such as Silk Road, an old-style bust is the only reasonable option. Tracing electronically just does not work, and so undercover officers selling and purchasing drugs online to try and capture the people who use “clumsy” non-anonymous methods are the only tactics that seem to work.
This is exactly what happened to The Farmer’s Market. The Farmers Market was another marketplace dealing in narcotics such as LSD, also operating through the TOR network. Yet in April 2012, it was busted by the DEA. The BBC reports (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-17738207) that the arrests “should send a clear message to organisations that are using technology to conduct criminal activity that the DEA and our law enforcement partners will track them down and bring them to justice”. However, this is not necessarily true. In fact, if you research the Farmer’s Market bust in more detail, you will find their anonymity in TOR did not fail. It was carelessness by various users between the years of 2007 and 2009, when they used an “anonymous” email service called Hushmail, and accepted Western Union and Paypal payments, that led to this sting operation.
The idea behind websites operating through the TOR network is brilliant. Non-censored information and a whistle-blowers paradise. However, the reality of the Deep Web today is that the vast majority of users are simply curious to see what they can find, yet the majority of what they find is non-useful or illegal. A world where people can browse anonymously is available to us right now, but until those who have valuable information make use of it, it will continue to be a haven for “undesirable content” in the minds of the public.