The Dark Net: Online trafficking and beyond

Article published on Oct. 18, 2016
Article published on Oct. 18, 2016

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Dark Net is strange to many and often labeled as a cesspool of criminals, but there is a light side to this part of the Web.

The light in the room is dim except for two big spotlights that point towards a large, circular red carpet and the man who stands on top of it. Behind him, the purple big velvet cloth creates theatrical scenery, especially designed to make him the center of attention. Jamie Bartlett dresses casually and talks with a British accent, in a witty and charming tone. His messy hair hides the sweat drops on his forehead poorly as he moves around with determination and speaks about a censorship-free world visited by anonymous users. Bartlett passionately talked for fourteen minutes at TEDGlobal London, a branch of the widely known Ted Talks, to a fairly clueless audience about one of his main interests: the Dark Web.

 “It’s a natural place to go for anybody with something to hide”, he claims. Bartlett is one of the world’s leading experts on the topic that he sees as one of the most “interesting and exciting” places anywhere on the Internet. For him, the Dark Web markets are creative, secure and difficult to censor. “I think that’s the future”, he adds without hiding his excitement. He points out to surveys that show how people are increasingly worried about their privacy online and what happens to their data, especially after Edward Snowden exposed NSA’s mass surveillance. For those who worry, there is a somewhat unknown but effective solution: the Dark Web.

It has never been more popular and keeps captivating users that range from political dissidents, journalists and activists to guns traffickers, child pornographers and drug users. While the debate about whether this hidden part of the Internet should be kept in the shadows or not is still on, no one can deny that millions of people see the Dark Web and the Tor browser as the increasingly ideal way to communicate online.

The start of the untraceable net           

In 2004, a group of researchers presented what they had been developing in partnership with the United States Navy: The Tor (The Onion Router) Project, an internet browser that allows users to anonymously navigate the Internet. Initially, the project was meant to protect intelligence communications from outside parties by encrypting the IP address of the users and then routing it through thousands of other computers around the world that use the same network. It adds layers of encryption to the data like skins on an onion (thus the name), until the user’s location and identity are impossible to discern.

But in order to guarantee anonymity through the browser, the Navy needed the Tor Network to have mass appeal so they allowed the system to become open source, which means it can be freely developed by anyone. It didn’t take too long until the Dark Web (or Dark Net) started to grow.

It is a collection of websites and services that use Tor to hide their IP addresses and are only accessible through the Tor Browser. Because of the way it works, it is very hard to shut down the websites that are hidden on this part of the Internet, granting the users certain anonymity and freedom that they don’t have on the regular Internet.  This means that the Dark Web can be used both for good and bad purposes. Edward Snowden’s exposed NSA files started a debate about anonymity and online security of the citizens, but the authorities are also concerned about the amount of criminal activities that started taking place in the depths of the hidden Internet.

Narcos 2.0

A standard white open envelope lies on top of the table. “This one came from Poland”, explained twenty-something ‘Andre’ (fake pseudo name) while picking it up. Inside it, there is a bag with eight squares of the popular psychedelic drug LSD. A card protects the content of the envelope, making it look normal and avoid suspicions on what it actually is - illegal drugs shipped from another country.

‘Andre’ is a “recreational drug user” from southern Denmark. He has used Bitcoins more than fifty times since 2012, always with the single purpose of purchasing drugs on the Dark Web. He still remembers the old days of the deceased website Silk Road, when less popular drugs like the psychedelic 2CB would “only cost £1,4 per trip”.

The process of purchasing drugs online is simple. The user pays for them using Bitcoins. The seller encrypts the user’s address and destroys it permanently after the package is sent. Even with prices having “skyrocketed to more than twenty times what they initially were” due to the volatility of the currency, ‘Andre’ can still buy almost any kind of drug from the comfort of his living room. The quasi-anonymity that the system provides its users is the only appeal for people like him. Drug users who avoid physical interaction between buyer and seller favor Bitcoin over the traditional ways and Silk Road’s massive popularity was a good example of that.

The website was often called the illicit version of Ebay and soon gained the monopoly and became a major part of online drug trafficking, ending up being seized by the FBI in October 2013. Now, several websites have recently taken its place.

With a white background, colorful letters in the logo and even the “I’m feeling lucky” search button, the web page for “Grams” seems to look familiar. But something is not quite right: the tagline is “Search the darknet”. Only accessible through Tor browser, this search engine was designed to look exactly like Google, but instead of saying “Search Google or type URL”, it incites the user to search for cannabis in the Dark Web. When the user does so, dozens of results that lead to different websites pop up.

The drug market “Valhalla” has a clean white web page design and allows non-registered users to search for products. One vendor called “Mr. Spain” sells 50 grams of “Amnesia Haze Cannabis Weed” for the Bitcoin equivalent of €270. All the transactions are made with Bitcoin, the only currency that keeps the users fairly anonymous. “Khaki” is a Cocaine vendor from Europe who is selling 3.5 grams of uncut Colombian powder for €220 on the “Dream Market” marketplace, established in 2013. In the same website, “genericvendor”, from Australia” offers to sell 3.5 grams of crystal methamphetamine for 775 Australian dollars. He thoroughly describes his product, writes out all the terms and conditions for the purchase and apparently is popular among the users, with a flawless 5 star rating. However, drugs are not the only thing one can buy in these marketplaces. “InvisibleHand” sells a book explaining how to smuggle goods through postal service, and guns are also popularly advertised. A Glock pistol goes for $850 and if buyers want something cheaper, they can buy a 45mm Winchester Magnum from “markwhite1” for only $500.

These are just some of the many examples of gun traffickers and drug dealers who have escaped from the real life transactions to conduct their illegal businesses in the shadowy Dark Web. The first study on the Dark Web users, conducted by researchers from King’s College London, shows that the majority (57%) of the sites designed for Tor, facilitate criminal activities. However, even the researchers admit that they might not have accessed all material available on the Dark Web because of the way the system is built. The controversy exists because, according to Jamie Bartlett, “there are more drugs, more available, more easily, to more people” and that worries the authorities, leading them to find strategies to take down the websites and arrest criminals like Ross Ulbricht. A year ago, the creator of the online drug bazaar “Silk Road” was convicted to life in prison after being arrested by the FBI and trialed by the US Department of Justice. However, even if the study is correct, there is still a big part of the websites that are not related to crime (43%) and that matters because, for some people, it is a matter of survival.

There is a light

“Media’s exaggeration and narrow focus of trafficking and illicit drugs, as we saw in the Silk Road scandal, is their way of controlling the narrative of events”, claims Nozomi Hayase, PhD. The Japanese columnist specializes in freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements and believes that privacy is a vital part of free speech. She also argues that those in power are afraid of citizens standing up to what Governments are doing and exercising their basic human rights. And that makes the powerful scared of platforms like the Dark Web because they restore people’s freedom. She points out the NSA (American National Security Agency) as an example. It became known that the agency was violating citizen’s fundamental right to privacy so, now “there has to be an alternative way of ensuring these rights”, she says. Adopting a censorship-free web and fully-encrypted communications would be an option, in order for the privacy to be woven into technology “as a fundamental right for everyone”.

While that is still not yet available, there is the Dark Web. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, had long been warning about surveillance and so has Edward Snowden. They were both labeled as paranoid, but now more people take what they say seriously and actively look for ways to guarantee their safety and privacy online. The Dark Web services started being used not only by criminals and tech experts. Journalists, human rights lawyers and many others are learning how to protect their communications through the hidden Internet.

The Tor Project team confirms this. Everyone can use the browser to “research sensitive topics” in countries where access to certain information is behind a firewall, but also to “skirt surveillance” or “circumvent censorship” in countries where sites like Facebook or Youtube are blocked. And this is actually a growing trend. Data released by Facebook in April shows that, in March, more than one million people all over the world accessed the social network over the Tor Browser, only 10 months after this service was available to the users.

True freedom, but with a cost

Now, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) use Tor to allow their workers to connect to their home website when they are in a foreign country without notifying everybody that they’re working with that organization. Also, Journalists use Tor and the Dark Web to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and dissidents. The Freedom of Press Foundation, from San Francisco, developed SecureDrop, a Dark Web service that is basically a “whistleblower submission system”, according to writer and activist Kevin Gallagher, member of the non-profit. SecureDrop is now being used by over 28 news outlets and activist organizations across the world, including The Guardian and the Washington Post.

This system is responsible for many major stories that have been reported based on a tip received through it. “We have greater transparency today because these sites exist”, claims Gallagher. Tor allows journalists to look into certain subjects on the Internet without leaving an identifiable trace. This means that the target of the story, the Government or anyone else is not monitoring the reporter. Gallagher believes that the Dark Web doesn’t have to be a place of anarchy and lawlessness. Instead, it can be a place where people can “speak freely and access information without censorship”. Even if there is a dark side to this hidden part of the Internet, the debate isn’t new.

Societies have always had to think about how liberty and freedom of expression can be “balanced with activity that is illegal”, says Gallagher. The criminals will still likely slip up, say something to the wrong person, leave evidence to be found, create witnesses and make mistakes. In an interview to The Telegraph, Paul Sylverson, co-founder of the Tor Project, was confronted with questions about the Dark Web crime. His response was that in the last century the Police was also upset because criminals could suddenly vanish because they had access to cars and the police didn’t. It took some time, but the police caught up and that ought to be the same with the Dark Web. It’s the price to pay for delivering freedom of expression to those who live in an authoritarian regime or dictatorship.

“Using Tor might literally be the difference between life and death”, explains Gallagher. As the software improves and becomes more usable, as well as accessible to people in countries all over the world, adoption increases because everyone has something they might want to hide or some site they’d like to visit without being found out. World travels fast and the Dark Web’s hidden services are getting increasingly popular, almost reaching the real world in real life situations.

“The Dark Web is no longer a den for drug dealers and a hideout for whistleblowers. It’s already going mainstream”, argues Jamie Bartlett. Just recently, the British electronic musician and composer Aphex Twin released his album as a Dark Web site. Also, a group of architects in London opened up a Dark Web site for people worried about regeneration projects. There is even “The Torist”, the first literary magazine of the Dark Web, which wants to introduce encryption to a broader audience and give people another entry point to the hidden Internet, other than drugs and crime. There are currently between two and three million daily users of the Tor Browser, most of them are legitimate. Bartlett predicts that “fairly soon” every social media company, every major news outlet and most people will be using the Dark Web.

“Neither entirely dark, nor entirely light. It’s not one side or the other that’s going to win out, but both”, he concluded his speech at TedGlobal London, while being enthusiastically applauded by his audience.