Fake passports. Social security numbers. Prostitutes. Drugs. Hitmen.
Welcome to the dark web – enter if you dare. Or as long as you have downloaded anonymity software.
A common misconception with the dark web is confusing it with the deep web. While in reality, they are two completely different areas. The web is broken up into three significant layers.
The first layer is referred to as the surface web, which includes common search engines such as Google and Bing. In fact, this very website that you’re scrolling through is part of it. Welcome to the surface web – the place that you surf everyday.
The deep web comes next. This layer includes academic data bases, medical records and even some government reports. It includes all sites and documents that are not accessible via search engines. Sometimes, users need a username and password to access these documents. Google and Bing don’t have a place in the deep web.
The final layer is where things become foggy. The dark web is a hidden network of websites which require special tools to access. Users must use anonymity software to hide their IP address. If not, users are susceptible to hackers and identity theft.
“The dark web is a smaller implication of the deep web,” according to Dr. John Yoon, Associate Professor of cybersecurity at Mercy College.
The deep and dark webs make up about 96% of the content on the web, according to a study conducted by Wired. Search engines don’t even scratch the surface.
Now, before anyone starts diving in to the web until they reach the very end, a special browser needs to be downloaded in order to protect confidential information.
The most common anonymity software used is The Onion Router or TOR. This browser hides a users IP address by bouncing communications around a distributed network of relays, which prevents another person from watching someone else’s internet connection and prevents sites from accessing a users physical location, according to the organization.
Since only about 3% of Tor traffic connects to onion services, the browser can be used for safer communication and social media access, according to Stephanie Whited, the Communications Director for the Tor Project.
“Onion services allow people not just to browse with a high degree of privacy, but also to publish, including websites,” she stated. The New York Times is now available as a Tor onion service, as an experiment in secure communication.
“Because the Tor network is so powerful, there’s a lot of illegal activity,” mentioned Yoon.
Once a user has successfully downloaded the Tor browser, which is completely free, they can access online markets and chatrooms that are published using these onion services.
“If someone is trying to track another person, that person can hide form one layer to another using the onion server,” stated Yoon. “It’s based around the layered structure of an onion.”
Regarding their browser being used for illegal activities, the company had no definitive comment.
“We are not experts on what sites other people have created,” added Whited. “Our software is free and open source, so anyone can use it.”
A common site that is accessed is Hidden Wiki which, similar to the surface web site Wikipedia, is broken down into categories and provides information for users convenience. Especially for newer users, it’s a website that lays out popular sites on the dark web, including marketplaces, pornography and even dark web radio stations.
On these onion service sites, users gain access to websites and online markets that have illegal items and services available for purchase. Some of these items include credit card numbers, human body parts, weapons and of course, drugs.
The dark web is moving over $100 million of illegal substances each year, according to a study from Usenix, the Advanced Computing Systems Association.
Silk Road is an online marketplace that is infamous for selling a variety of drugs including marijuana, opioids and ricin. And while it’s been shut down several times by authorities, versions of it keep revamping.
A few years ago, in early 2014, a young man from Brooklyn found himself surfing the dark web for the first time. And before he could even comprehend what was going on, he was buying an unnecessary amount of marijuana from a dealer on the Silk Road 2.0.
“I only went on to see what it was all about,” Nick said. “And before I knew it I was buying some weed.”
Nick, who was 17 at the time, found himself baffled by how much product he could get for so little money. He ended up buying a pound of weed for a little under $600, which according to him, ranges from $800 to $1,000 on the street.
After realizing that he was interested in buying a product, the first step Nick took was setting up a Bitcoin account. Bitcoin is the default currency for the dark web. It’s virtually untraceable and can be transferred world wide. Now, with his digital wallet all set up thanks to his father’s credit card, it was time for him to give an address.
He did some research online and found out that setting up a P.O. box and using a fake name is the safest way to buy items or services from this illegal part of the web. Nick was surprised that it didn’t cost anything to set up a P.O. box at his local UPS store, and since he was nervous that the seller would find out he was using a fake name, he used a real one – his second cousin’s.
“I shouldn’t of used his name, but he lives in Ireland and is like really old,” he explained. “I just didn’t want anyone to track me.”
Once he successfully took all of the necessary steps to ensure a safe purchase, he was ready to place the item in his cart.
“My hands were shaking,” Nick mentioned. “I felt like I was going to regret this.”
After entering his shipping and Bitcoin account information, Nick received a message from the seller.
“Thanks. You can expect your package in two to four weeks.”
Nick was shocked that it would take so long. He bought it from a buyer in China but he still thought it would come in a timely fashion.
“After I purchased it, I couldn’t sleep for like a few days,” he said. “I thought I would wake up to the FBI standing over my bed with a gun point at me, so it was better not to sleep.”
In three weeks time, Nick received his package. The pound of weed was sent in a small box but inside was covered in lavender dryer sheets and pine scented
candle wax melts to mask the smell. After he broke through the layers of dryer sheets, an urn looking vase was exposed. There was a note from the seller that said “enjoy” with a winking face attached to the vase. He opened it up and there was his product.
“The note creeped me out,” he said. “I barely even smoke weed so this wasn’t worth it.”
The now 20 year old mentioned that he wouldn’t recommend buying anything from the dark web, and that it’s much easier to buy it on the street. He also requested that his last name not be published, “just incase the FBI is watching.”
He also added that his father was very upset about the over $600, including shipping costs, charge on his credit card and that he was grounded for “almost the rest of his life.”
Besides being used for buying drugs and other illegal materials, the dark web is well-known for it’s use by whistleblowers.
“Onion browsers hide someone’s IP address, and without an IP address, no one can track your behavior,” added Dr. Yoon. “It makes anonymous communication easy.”
In 2013, Edward Snowden who is an American computer professional and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, leaked classified information from the National Security Agency without authorization using the dark web.
Even though he ended up revealing his identity, he leaked the documents on the dark web to help conceal his identity because he was at risk of being prosecuted by the government.
Another well-known incident is when customer information from the cheating site, Ashley Madison, was released using an onion address. Hackers got into the Ashley Madison data base and posted the information of about 32 million users.
As mentioned by Dr. Yoon before, it’s almost impossible for another individual to track an IP address that is hidden by using a Tor network, therefore it’s easy for whistleblowers to release information without worry of being caught.
The dark web is full of secrets and thanks to anonymity software, it’s easier to access than one may think.