The darknet: My journey through the depths of the Internet

Article published on Jan. 25, 2018
Article published on Jan. 25, 2018

Net neutrality, personal data protection and the portability of digital rights may be on governmental agendas, but there is one place where these matters were settled ages ago: the darknet. Free from any government-imposed rules, it offers relative anonymity and protection. It’s a close-to-home El Dorado, only a keystroke away, that nonetheless I had never dared to approach.

Darknet, Deep Web and Tor are expressions I've been hearing for years, and they conjure images straight out of my imagination: something between Mr. Robot and the Russian mafia, a sort of black page covered in code, full of things that have got to be illegal. I’ve always imagined it as a sort of old school website with no formatting, reserved for insiders only. It wouldn't have surprised me if there were certain conditions that had to be met before being authorised to connect.

My imagination was clearly fuelled by newspaper headlines and their perennial references to "that other Web where you can get away with anything.” The crazy saga of Silk Road (the ex-Amazon of the Darknet) and its creator Ross William Ulbricht, spy stories and conspiracy theories: that's how people usually sum up the hidden part of the Internet.

Bitcoins and an onion

My brother Arthur is a trader who trained as a telecoms engineer. When I first asked him to show me the hidden side of the Web, he never could have guessed the depths of my ignorance. He didn't even suspect that, when he told me jokingly I "wasn't ready," he was only feeding the flames of my imagination. But my reaction must have given him at least a hint. The night before our journey into deep web territory, he said: "We'll have to use your computer, I don't want to risk mine, I've got too many Bitcoins stored there." He was just kidding, but of course I fell for it hook, line and sinker. But the first thing Arthur explained to me is that the darknet isn't dangerous, as long as you take precautions. In fact, it's probably more secure than the visible Web, the one we connect to every day.

That day, I was determined to brave the shocking images, incomprehensible pages, and complex manipulations. Notebook in hand, I was prepared to write everything down, even though I still wasn't sure I'd understand all the explanations. It had been a while since my brother had connected to the darknet. He had explored it many times, curious and wanting to learn more, but it hadn't become a habit. Since he's well aware of how fast technology evolves, he double-checked everything he was telling me so I wouldn't write down anything incorrect.

Before connecting to Tor (The Onion Router) for the first time, it's best to make sure that you have the right tools. In other words, explained Arthur, you should be equipped with a VPN. Connecting to Tor, the "worldwide overlay computer network," without one is out of the question. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a system that allows you connect to any network, anywhere. In other words, you can connect from Germany while you're actually in France. This kind of system is indispensable in order to keep from being traced (because, as my brother reminded me, our routers record everything we do on the Internet). In and of itself Tor isn't dangerous, but if my ISP (Internet Service Provider) notices that I accessed the darknet, it might just find that suspicious. The government could have a file started on me in no time. I love my job, but all that just to write an article is a little more than I bargained for. I agreed to install a VPN.

Arthur tried to explain how Tor works so that I could understand why we were using it to access the darknet. The purple onion patterns helped. Arthur began by explaining that the network is actually organised in "onion layers.” So when I connect to a site, my IP address is encrypted and has to pass through the "layers" or "nodes" of the onion to access it. Concretely, these are servers located all over the world and maintained by volunteers, and also the computers of other Tor users worldwide. Each layer is a different relay, and it only has information about the last layer I left. This means that the final layer--the site--can't trace my itinerary back as far as my IP address. So in theory, I'm protected.

But there's a flaw in the system. Arthur explained that when I connect to the first site, I'm not actually protected. Tor can't protect the connection between my computer and the first layer of the onion. However, a good VPN can do a decent job of securing the whole thing.

“The famous iceberg metaphor”

So I got my VPN, and while I was trying yet again to concretely visualise how there can be "onion layers" on the Internet, Arthur started installing Tor Browser, the navigator that would allow me to access darknet sites. He also introduced me to how this "parallel Web" was born: volunteers with grandiose dreams of a free, anonymous Web, he explained, put the first version online in 2001.

Because although the primitive Web offered a certain level of freedom, that is no longer the case today. Now we each have an identity when we connect to the Internet: an IP address. On the conventional Web, that identity is visible. It allows sites to identify us and to access information about our navigation. For true lovers of the free Web who believe that "my computer is a continuation of my brain," that concept is unbearable. "Having someone else accessing my data on my computer or while I'm online, well, it's sort of like rape," said my brother seriously.  

We finally open Tor. But as soon as the welcome screen of the navigator appears, my dramatic fantasies vanish. The page is purple, with plain text explaining the best practices to follow on the navigator. There's a recommendation for a search engine to use for conventional sites, with a logo of a duck. But I still don't know how to access the other Web. Anyone can surf the indexed Web anonymously by using this search engine, but finding darknet sites is more complicated. My brother goes on: “It’s really a question of indexing. You can use Tor to access sites that aren't indexed on the visible Web. Their addresses, or URLs, are in ‘onion,’ and begin with a series of random letters and numbers (for example, http://zqktlwi4fecvo6ri.onion). This address changes regularly, specifically to avoid leaving too much of a trail. In fact, there are even more sites that exist in ‘onion’ than there are on the visible Web; it’s like the famous iceberg metaphor.”

The Visible Web, indexed by search engines, is the visible part of the iceberg. The rest is the underwater part, which is much, much bigger. But how do I find an onion site? "There are 'hidden wikis' that index some sites, and are updated regularly. There are also search engines that try to index these sites, but they can't catalogue all of them. Practically speaking, either you know about a page and add it to your favourites, or you go from link to link."

To begin, we enter the address of a "hidden wiki." It has all the classic, well-organised features of a Wikipedia and again I am surprised not to feel more out of my element. After a few articles explaining the ideology of the darknet and how to become a volunteer to help develop the system, the links are arranged by categories: financial services, commercial services, books, drugs, erotica, forums, anonymity, etc. Everything seems normal, except the listed subjects themselves. We browse through some fairly austere sites on buying fake identity cards for every country, weapons, counterfeit currency sales, drugs, and all kinds of stolen and resold items.

"When you get used to going to these sites, you start wondering what the real prices are for things: the ones listed here, or the ones you see in stores?" said Arthur. For me, the smooth, reassuring aspect of all these sites is a little creepy. Here, the worst of the worst seems as easily accessible as items at the grocery store. It’s so easy to be tempted. 

But Arthur wanted to draw my attention to the darknet's other possibilities, far from these popular clichés that represent only a fraction of its uses. For example, we go to the site of a professional hacker – not so far from my fantasies about Mr. Robot after all – who guarantees that he can pull off absolutely anything we have in mind, as long as we can pay. The page is terrifying, and meets all my preconceived ideas about the darknet: a black background with a logo of a skull-and-crossbones and a Kalashnikov. At the bottom, a "contact" tab sparked my curiosity.

Once again, Arthur had an explanation for me. To communicate with people who want to preserve their anonymity and security at any price, you have to use an anonymous contact protocol, or "PGP," that encrypts messages using a read key. This logic, combined with that of the onion network, paved the way for the emergence of Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies (which have now emerged from the darknet) through a technology known as "block chain.” If I wanted to contact this hacker, I'd have to write my text, then enter his personal key before sending the message, which would be encrypted. Because he is the unique holder of the other half of that key, only he would be able to read it. The key is a series of digits, numbers and random signs, about as long as half a page in Word. "You would need 10 thousand billion years to crack a PGP key, and you'd have to try every possible combination in a brute-force attack," my brother clarified.

The light at the end of the darknet tunnel

On the dark Web everything seems to be accessible, from forbidden publications like Mein Kampf to manuals for making explosives, poison, and all kinds of other things that I never could have imagined. Arthur warned me: "If you want to download something, make sure you're entirely logged off before you open the document.” If there's a virus hidden somewhere, it won't have enough time to be executed if I'm offline.

But bypassing censorship doesn't necessarily mean illegal activities, and my brother really wanted to show me that other side of the darknet: the one that allows people from all over the world to interact, even in censored countries; the one that gives whistle-blowers a means of sharing documents securely and anonymously, such as on Wikileaks; the one that protects journalists’ and bloggers' information and allows them to do their work all over the world. We soon find ourselves on platforms that explain how we can effectively protect our information. On the site We Fight Censorship created by Reporters Without Borders, censored articles are published securely. For example, you can access the audio recordings from the Bettencourt affair, published by Mediapart and banned by the French courts. Certain newspapers, like The Guardian, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, also offer SecureDrop, which allows journalists and their informers to deposit their articles or documents securely and anonymously.

Arthur was in a bit of a rush. Before leaving me to explore the possibilities of the network for myself, he happened to click on a site that gathers all Tor's statistics (Tor Metrics). Fascinated, he added it to my favourites and told me: "Go back there, it's great for journalists!” So I did, and here are the most telling statistics: right now, in January, there are around eight thousand relay servers in the world, two thousand of which are "secret" and not indexed. Around four million people currently use Tor. The profiles of those four million users vary widely, from the merely curious to those worried about the anonymity and security of their data to crooks, journalists, NGO members, hackers, coders, etc. It's the diversity of those profiles and their sheer numbers that guarantee both the security of the system and its sustainability. My days of exploring the darknet are far from over. This adventure taught me so much that will be helpful in my daily use of the Web. Now I know the basic rules for protecting my data. I also have a better understanding of the inner workings of a tool that I use every day, and in which I used to naïvely place so much trust.

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This article was published in collaboration with Mes Datas et Moi, a platform dedicated to reclaiming our online identities. Wanna check it out

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