Dylan is not wearing a ski mask or sitting in the dark, yet no one can see who he is. He is not hiding in a corner or obscured behind a screen, but no one knows where he came from, what he’s doing or where he’s going. He is a ghost. Well, at least on the Internet, he is.
Dylan and I are lounging in a hazy apartment decorated with tapestries and Tibetan prayer flags. He nudges me with his elbow, the glow from his laptop reflecting off his glasses.
“See? It’s that easy,” he tells me, hovering over the “add to cart” button with his cursor. A few grams of ketamine, among other hard drugs, are what’s for sale.
Dylan will remain as anonymous in this article, as he is on the Internet. I have changed his name, and the names of everyone else I interviewed, in the interest of privacy. What I will tell you, though, is that he is a well-groomed, intelligent neuroscience student and aspiring psychopharmacologist who has taken some time out of his day to show me around the deep web – or the dark net, as some like to call it. He was an experienced shopper on “The Silk Road” – an enormous black marketplace hidden in the deep web – up until October 2013 when the site was seized by the FBI.
The deep web isn’t as mysterious as it sounds. It accounts for over 99 percent of all data on the internet (7,500 terabytes compared to the 19 terabytes contained in the surface web). Contrary to popular understanding of the deep web – informed by scary headlines about black market places, terrorist chat rooms and pornography – not all of this web space is sinister. Ever bought anything on the internet? That page where you type in your credit card information is deep web. Ever posted anything on Blackboard? That’s also deep web. Your Facebook newsfeed? Deep web. Basically, any web page that can’t be found by a search engine is considered “deep web”.
“The way a search engine like Google works is it basically finds links, searches that link for other links and then makes a huge list of links,” says Zach, a computer science student also in the room with me and Dylan. “If there is no actual link to the page, then there is no way for Google, or anyone else, to find it.”
Think of it this way: there are websites that exist in digital space in total isolation; there are no bridges that connect them to other digital islands and you can only be teleported to them by another website that has the URL embedded in its programming. Those virtual islands are deep web. But as I mentioned earlier, the deep web is very, very deep, and your Facebook newsfeed and Blackboard posts are just barely below the surface; you’ll have to dig a little deeper to buy ketamine.
Dylan and I are browsing a deep website called “Sheep,” one of the many hydra-style heads that grew in place of the severed Silk Road. He scrolls down the site’s inventory; everything from drugs to guns to instructions on how to make C4 to stolen jewelry to fake IDs are for sale. The illicit nature of this site’s business necessitates anonymity; without it, the vendors would all be in jail and customers would all be scared of going to jail. The deep web is a great place for such unlawful trading because it facilitates anonymity, but Internet browsers such as Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari, and Firefox don’t have the means to freely access this hidden section of the web. For that you need a special kind of browser – a Tor browser.
The Tor network (Tor being an acronym for “The Onion Router”) was designed and implemented by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory for the purposes of creating a completely secure avenue for government communications. It has since entered the public domain and can be downloaded for free, and completely legally, on the Tor Project’s website. It comes with a Mozilla Firefox plug-in, so the Tor browser looks identical to a Firefox browser. You can even download it to your iPhone if you want. Because it is so accessible, the general public uses it for all sorts of reasons. The Tor network keeps personal information secret, protecting people from identity thieves and irresponsible corporations. People use it to protect their children online. For people who live in countries with repressive governments, the Tor network allows them to research censored topics, publish their opinions, and file stories with non-state controlled media. Law enforcement uses the Tor network to conduct online surveillance of the surface web, to coordinate undercover operations and to facilitate truly anonymous tip lines. The Tor network also aids activists in whistleblowing, Edward Snowden being the most recent high profile example.
Despite the Tor network’s usability, the science behind it is highly sophisticated and tremendously complicated, so I contacted an expert to break it down for me.
Lucy is a web developer at a small digital media firm where she spends most of her time in the office building and launching websites for corporate clients. She sent me an email detailing the structure of the internet, above and below the surface.
“Under normal circumstances, computer A requests website data from server B. Then server B returns the data to computer A. Both parties are aware of each other and their IP address (location) information.”
The surface web, otherwise known as the clear net, is based on a simple system of direct, two way traffic. The Tor network, however, mixes things up a little.
“When using the Tor network, the user at computer A is still requesting the same information from the same server B, but this time computer A’s request is passed from server C, D, J, M, I and then to Server B. This way, server B is only aware of server I and has no way of knowing where the request originally came from. Then server B returns the requested data to server I which then passes the data on through another random selection of servers (H to Y to E to X) until it returns to computer A. This way, computer A is only aware of server X and can’t possibly know where the data is coming from.”
Lucy made it sound simple by labeling the routers as letters, of which there are only 26. The Tor network, however, has over four thousand routers to relay the information. This means that the number of different routes a request could take is astronomical and therefore fully untraceable. But if it’s so untraceable and all the sites exist as isolated virtual islands, how do you find anything at all? Well, all you need is the URL.
Dylan minimizes his Tor browser and opens up Google Chrome. He goes to Reddit.com, a huge message-board site so popular that it calls itself “the front page of the internet”. He searches for “Sheep,” scrolls down to find Sheep’s sub-reddit page and then points to the numerous URLs listed on the right side of the screen. The URLs (which look something like czdiryebjjayhmdh.onion) change frequently because the website is constantly moving around in cyberspace.
Dylan started buying drugs off the deep web during his freshman year of college. Since then, he has spent over a thousand dollars on drugs like marijuana, MDMA, hashish, ketamine and cocaine.
“I don’t think the deep web is responsible for me doing drugs,” he says. “I would do them anyway. Websites like Sheep just make it easier and a whole lot safer for me to buy and experiment with drugs.”
Dylan makes an interesting point about the deep web being safer. In real life, when you go to buy drugs you have to deal with a drug dealer, which, in most instances, is sketchy and unpleasant. On top of that you can’t really know how safe the product you are buying is; the pill that is supposed to be pure MDMA could be cut with all sorts of shit. When you buy online, however, there is an entire community of fellow shoppers who will vouch for the dealers (known as “vendors”) and their products.
“Here, look at this guy,” Dylan says, clicking on vendor 0241.6o7’s profile page. “This guy is pretty big time, he’s sold probably thousands of products. The reason he’s been able to sell so much is because of this…”
Good s—. No hangover next day. Cleaner than anything you get on the street. Highly recommend.
Wow. Just wow. Best acid I ever dropped.
No problems with payment or delivery. Good product too.
Dylan continues to scroll past thousands of comments, all of which laud the quality of the vendor’s products and recommend doing business with him.
The fact of the matter is that this vendor is not one guy, but likely a small ring of savvy businessmen who employ high-level organic chemists to cook extremely complicated synthetic drugs like LSD, MDMA and ketamine. Simpler drugs like cocaine and meth are sold by equally savvy businessmen, but with seedier and more violent origins, while marijuana generally comes from pot farmers on the west coast.
“And you know the stuff will be good because it’s coming from the Netherlands,” Dylan elaborates. A lot of synthetic drugs come from first world countries with liberal drug policies like the Netherlands, or countries with lax regulation, like China, where expensive organic chemistry laboratories can go largely unnoticed. Before internet black markets, the only way to make a profit selling drugs internationally was to smuggle them in large quantities, but now distributors can profitably move drugs across borders in smaller amounts, thus avoiding the far riskier endeavor of a big shipment.
By now these vendors are extraordinarily wealthy. The Silk Road was a one-billion-dollar business before it got shut down, and many vendors like 0241.6o7 sell thousands of dollars worth of product every day. Actually, scratch that. Vendors like 0241.6o7 sell thousands of Bitcoins worth of product every day.
Bitcoins might be the most fascinating aspect of this whole operation. Anonymity is great and all, but how are you going to buy something if you have no idea who to send the money to? Enter Bitcoin, a completely digital but very real currency. It is totally legal and anyone who wants to acquire, spend or trade Bitcoins can do so at will. While the currency is still in its infancy, the value of all Bitcoins in circulation exceeds US$1.5 billion, and millions of dollars worth of Bitcoins are traded every day. All sorts of businesses, ranging from restaurants to hotels to car dealerships accept Bitcoins as a form of payment. Although it is not yet recognized as a functional currency by larger financial institutions, the Bitcoin is traded in the same way as the U.S. dollar, the British pound and the Euro; the only difference is that it isn’t actually printed on paper. The exchange rate fluctuates frequently and with the recent surge in Bitcoin trading the value is skyrocketing; the day I talked to Dylan, one Bitcoin was worth about US$165, and the next day one Bitcoin was worth US$180. It is based on highly technical and sophisticated economic policies and, according to Zach, his university is even planning on offering courses on the finance of Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is a brand new invention with a mysterious history. It was introduced in a paper published pseudonymously in 2008 on an internet-based cryptography mailing list, so no one actually knows who created it. The economic and financial underpinnings behind Bitcoin are far beyond the scope of this article and require a comprehensive knowledge of economics and finance to understand. But getting Bitcoins is easy. Dylan shows me his Bitcoin wallet, which is linked up to the Bitcoin trading website, Mt Gox.
“To get Bitcoins, all I have to do is tell Mt Gox how much I want, and then they give me an address for a nearby bank, usually the one down the street. I then go to that bank, give the teller cash money and the bitcoins are usually in my wallet by the time I get back home.” Dylan essentially just makes a deposit into Mt Gox’s bank account. Once Mt Gox sees that Dylan has given them money, they give him bitcoins in exchange. The process for using them on the Tor network is only slightly more involved. “If I want to buy something on Sheep, I just make a new wallet on the Sheep website. Then I transfer as many Bitcoins as I want to my Sheep wallet. Then Sheep takes all my Bitcoins and mixes them up with all the other Bitcoins on the site, so that the flow of Bitcoins is untraceable. Once I’m ready to buy something, I press buy and my Bitcoins go into this thing called an escrow system. So the money is taken out of my account, but the vendor doesn’t have it yet; it’s being held in this system until I confirm that I’ve received the drugs.”
This sounds perfectly efficient, but altercations surely arise when products aren’t delivered, or if products are delivered but the buyer lies and says nothing ever arrived.
“All of these websites have administrators, who are basically staffed by the website to mediate these problems,” Dylan explains. The Tor network also has a messaging system known as Tor mail, which allows a user to talk to other people on the Tor network anonymously. This means that the customer service on websites like Sheep is totally personable. “Every time I’ve had to interact with vendors, or administrators, or just other buyers, whether it’s just to ask about a product or to clear up a payment issue, they’ve all been friendly and professional. They view themselves as serious businessmen and you as a legitimate customer. It’s all very civil.”
Regardless of the formality of the operation, it is still illegal, and with that comes the risk of getting caught. Dylan says he never worries about it. “These vendors have discreet shipping down to a science,” he says. That certainly must be the case if some of them are able to move vast quantities of drugs around the world.
After purchasing the drugs, Dylan sends his address to the vendor in an encrypted file that can only be decoded by the vendor. This, he says, is not incriminating because even if the vendor turned out to be an undercover cop, in theory anyone could have submitted the address. It is then delivered by conventional mail, oftentimes by the U.S. Postal Service, hidden in things like tubes of lipstick or jars of peanut butter. There is only one golden rule: never sign for a package. The worst case scenario, as far as he is concerned, is that his drugs get intercepted and immediately destroyed. This has happened to him on a couple of occasions, but it is on the vendor to either send another package or forfeit the Bitcoins.
The confidence with which Dylan and thousands of others buy drugs does not make their activity any less criminal, but at this stage, legality is hardly the issue. The point is that the Internet has made black market trafficking so easy, so secure and so sophisticated that it simply can’t be stopped. According to Lucy, there is no effective way to police the deep web as it is now. Law enforcement might be able to shut down a few offenders every now and then as they did with The Silk Road, but that seizure had nothing to do with cracking the Tor network; the FBI caught the site’s owner soliciting a hit man and only then was it able to shut the site down at its source. This implies that anonymous activity is inherent to the Internet, and even when law enforcement eventually finds a way to pull the deep web out of the shadows, people will simply find another way to hide in cyberspace. And this is a very scary implication because drugs are the very least of law enforcement’s concerns.
Remember all the legitimate uses for the Tor network that I mentioned earlier? Well, the Tor network and the anonymity it facilitates are tools. As tools, they can be used in the same ways as a hammer, a car, or a gun. Good people use hammers to build houses, bad people use hammers to break windows. Good people use cars to get to work, bad people use cars to flee the scene of a crime. You get the idea. The Internet is no different, and neither are Bitcoins, the Tor network, nor, more abstractly, anonymity.
That being said, if you choose to go diving in the deep web you will eventually find yourself entering circles of digital hell that are home to the most insidious things known to man; child pornography and slave trading of all kinds among them. Hackers, terrorists and criminals of all sorts congregate and collude in the shadows of the deep web. Videos of people being beaten, raped and tortured are also sure to be found in the deeper recesses of the Tor network. But that doesn’t make the Internet, the Tor network or anonymity inherently evil. Humans, monkeys that we are, will use tools to get what we want, as virtuous or depraved as those desires may be. Our primitive hammers have evolved into very sophisticated, incredibly powerful tools. We’ve created an entirely new dimension of reality, for crying out loud.
“In theory, the Internet is infinite,” offers Zach as he sprawls out on his bed. “If you can imagine it, it exists online.”
Dylan closes his laptop and heads to the kitchen for a snack. His virtual ghost lays dormant while he does so. Meanwhile, I fall back into the couch and think about cavemen. Did any of our ancestors consider throwing water on the first-ever fire? For all they knew it could have burned the entire world to a crisp. Good thing they trusted each other enough to keep the flame alight.
Photo Sources: extremetech.com, witnessthis.wordpress.com, coindesk.com.