The FBI’s takedown of the Silk Road, the Internet’s largest black market, earlier this month brought new attention to the shadowy online ecosystem it inhabits: the Dark Net.
The Dark Net is a world of websites that are only accessible through anonymizing software, and Tor is the leader of the pack. When using a Web browser like Chrome or Firefox, your IP address and identity are shared whenever you visit a website or send an email. With Tor, your information is encrypted and bounced around servers all over the world before it reaches its final destination. From the perspective of the website you visit, you might be surfing the Web in Siberia.
As information is sent online via Tor, its encryption is gradually unpeeled at each stop to give just enough information so the node knows what node to send it on to next. Because of the layers of encryption, it’s called “onion routing.” Tor stands for The Onion Router.
The odd bedfellows of the underground
“It was originally developed to enable military agents to communicate across the world with various bases here in the U.S. and elsewhere safely,” Cole Stryker, author of “Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web,” told America Tonight. “The more people using the network the stronger it is, which is why the U.S. government opened it up to the public for anyone to use.”
Free and downloadable in under a minute, Tor now has half of a million users a day, according to its 2012 annual report, and accounts for 0.014 percent of total Internet traffic. The software is still primarily funded by the U.S. government, with extra cash coming from an array of sources, including Google, the Swedish International Development Cooperative Agency and The Knight Foundation, which is a nonprofit dedicated to quality journalism.
There are many reasons why the government would throw its research muscle and money behind a way to browse the web incognito. Such a service allows intelligence agents to investigate suspects, conduct honeypot stings and take down targets without blowing their cover, or in the case of an organized crime ring, risking the lives of their loved ones.
True online anonymity is also a godsend for whistleblowers. The result is a strange marriage between the people running the government and the people trying to subvert and evade them; Julian Assange and Edward Snowden relied on anonymizing software to do their work. Inside the U.S., these services can be incredibly helpful for anyone with a secret to keep or disclose. Outside the U.S., they can save lives.
“We were not allowed actually to group five people and do any activities,” Dlshad Othman, a political activist for Syria’s Kurdish population before the country's civil war, told America Tonight. “But secure communications allowed us to bring thousands of people together and talk, and say, ‘Look, the regime is doing this and this and this. We should go demonstration outside’… If there was no secure communication, there would be no revolution in Syria.”
When a British filmmaker who had obtained footage revealing Othman’s identity was arrested, Othman fled Syria. He is now developing tools for secure online communication from the more free speech-friendly Washington, D.C.
“People, they got killed because of their activities online,” Othman said. “So it’s crystal clear that the Syrian regime is controlling Internet and arresting people because of your online activities. So it is a matter of life.”
But from the very beginning, the developers behind Tor recognized that there was another very large group that would take advantage of the anonymity they were offering: criminals.
The dark side of the Dark Net
“Child pornography is rampant, including markets for on-demand child abuse. It's sickening,” said Rich Jones, a computer security researcher and founder of one of the most popular forums about the Dark Net. “There are indiscriminate drug and weapons markets. Credit card fraud is conducted on a massive scale. Thieves and assassins openly post their resumes and contact information. Honestly, it's not a particularly nice place.”
Most people use Tor to browse regular websites, or what Dark Netizens refer to as the “clearnet,” in the comfort of anonymity. That’s the whole reason Tor was designed. But there are also thousands of “Hidden Services,” a feature Tor developers added as an afterthought, which are only accessible through Tor.
Some of these websites are set up for anonymous tips, like Wikileaks or the New Yorker’s strongbox. Others are bizarro versions of clearnet websites, like forums, search engines and a fake Twitter.
“There are plenty of people that are just fooling around, who are experimenting with their anarcho-libertarian dream of living in a world without government prying eyes,” Stryker said.
Then, there’s the underworld’s underbelly: leaked celebrity Social Security numbers, hitmen for hire and lots and lots of child porn.
In August, the FBI shut down the largest hosting company on the Dark Net, Freedom Hosting, and is seeking the extradition of its alleged founder, calling him "the largest facilitator of child porn on the planet." Twenty-eight-year-old Eric Eoin Marques, an Irish-American dual citizen, is currently in Dublin, where he's been judged a flight risk and denied bail.
Drugs are likely the most highly trafficked contraband on the Dark Net, and the Silk Road was like a megamall. The Silk Road’s success stemmed from how much it resembled a standard e-commerce site. Befitting its nickname as the "Amazon.com of drugs,” users could browse through handy categories like “stimulants,” “dissociatives” and “opiods,” read reviews of the sellers, drop their drugs of choice into a shopping cart and check out with bitcoins, the virtual, untracable currency. The Internet version of paying in cash.
The Silk Road allowed people who might not have the connections, or fearlessness, to go hunting for a street-level dealer to buy hardcore narcotics in bulk. But a 17-year-old boy who bought MDMA, LSD, magic mushrooms and the psychedelic compound DMT on the Silk Road told America Tonight that he thought the illicit bazaar took some of the danger out of drug use.
“You hear a lot of news stories about kids dying from the stuff, from any kind of drug,” he said. “But when you’re buying online you see the reviews from the rest of the people. So it’s safer. There’s rating and stuff like that.”
The Silk Road shutdown sent tremors through the Dark Net, as users became suddenly insecure about how truly anonymous their anonymity was. Within days, however, Silk Road competitors, like Sheep Marketplace and Black Market Reloaded, began scooping up the Silk Road’s market share, and a Silk Road 2.0 is poised to launch Nov. 5, according to online sources.
For now, the Dark Net -- the good, the bad and the disgusting -- is shaken, but undeterred. It is a showcase of everything human beings do when they think they’re not being watched. And it continues to raise the question that one of Tor’s inventors posed back in 2004.
"The real question is not, how much privacy would you give up for security?” he said. “The question is, how much security would you give up for security?"