Navigating The Deep, Dark Web

from the dig-in dept

We recently ran an excerpt from Cole Stryker’s new book, Hacking the Future about the importance of anonymity. Here’s the second excerpt from this book, our latest book club selection. This time it’s about navigating parts of the web that not everyone knows about… We’ll be hosting a chat with Stryker in the near future, to be announced soon.

I first heard whispers of the deep Web on 4chan. It was often positioned by active users as a place where even the most hardened /b/tard (a nickname for heavy users who hang out on 4chan’s “random” board a lot) can find things to shock the system. The deep Web is depicted there as the submerged portion of an iceberg. The Web that we know is the tip, and the massive portion underwater is the deep Web.

“I’ve just come back from the deep Web,” they say, “and look what I found.” They share ghastly images and stories, perpetuating the legend of this vast underbelly among underbellies. In these conversations I was led to believe that the deep Web—also called the invisible Web, the darknet, undernet, and several other sinister-sounding names—was home to the sort of content that would get you thrown in jail if it were ever traced back to you. This is true, to an extent, but technically the deep Web comprises anything that isn’t crawlable by major search engines like Google. This can mean dynamic URLs that have a long string of parameters that might confuse spiders (the software that “crawls” Web sites to index them for search). Any content that’s behind a pay wall or other password authentication is technically included in the deep Web. This would include your e-mail or a pay-to-view newspaper Web site. Any content that lies behind a form, like a survey or poll, often can’t be crawled. Some sites purposefully exclude spiders using robots.txt, a file that tells spiders to steer clear of certain Web pages for various legitimate, legal reasons. Pages that are made up of flash content obviously can’t be crawled because there’s no raw text on the page. So to say that the deep Web is the seedy back alley of the Internet is not entirely accurate.

However, there are parts of the deep Web, accessible only with the use of certain anonymizing software, where baddies sometimes hang out. The deep Web is rife with readily available child pornography, terrorist rhetoric, drug and sex trade—all manner of taboo and hateful communication.

One such piece of anonymizing software is called the Onion Router, or Tor, briefly mentioned earlier. Tor reroutes communications coming from your computer around the world across a distributed network of volunteer-run nodes that make up the Tor Network. Tor passes users’ traffic through three servers before sending it along to its destination. The network was originally sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research to help military agents abroad bypass firewalls and other “censorware” in countries like China. For this reason, some speculate that the service is routinely monitored by the U.S. government and cannot be trusted.

Technically, Tor is not an anonymizing service so much as an obfuscating one. Tor alone can’t keep anyone anonymous; it’s merely one item in the smart anon’s tool belt. Tor works to anonymize your Internet connection, but can also be applied to specific programs. The most popular program used in tandem with Tor is the Internet browser. The Tor team has built a Firefox extension that applies several “onion-like” layers of obfuscation to data communicated through Firefox. Because Tor routes your traffic around the world, it’s not very fast. The more people volunteer to contribute their machines as nodes, the faster Tor will get.

I thought I’d check it out for myself. I downloaded the Tor software, ran the executable file, and installed the software. When I ran the program, within seconds a browser window opened saying, “Congratulations. Your browser is configured to use Tor. Please refer to the Tor Web site for further information about using Tor safely. You are now free to browse the Internet anonymously.” I typed in a URL I found on 4chan for an underground deep Web portal called Hidden Wiki, waited about thirty seconds (an eternity in the era of Wideband and FIOS), and a blank page popped up, reading “Looking for Hidden Wiki?” The last two words were blue, indicating a hyperlink, so I clicked it, and up popped a page that looked just like Wikipedia. A sidebar listed the categories that are available to browse: blogs, books, political advocacy, but also drugs and underage erotica. I clicked on a link called “Killer for Hire.”

This can’t possibly be for real, can it?

You can call me Slate. All you need to know is that I am well trained and can perform what you need done. I do not need to know your situation with the hit and prefer not to. I’m hired when you want to make sure that the hit doesn’t get traced back to you.

  • Minimum age for hit is 18.
  • I do not care of the gender of the hit.
  • I do not kill pregnant women.
  • I do not torture the target.
  • If hit is a political figure, or is in law enforcement (judges, policemen) there will be an additional fee.
  • For an additional fee, I can set it up as a “suicide” or an “accident”
  • Hit will take place within 4 weeks.
  • Hits outside of the continental US will require an additional 2 weeks of logistics and $5000 in travel fees.
  • Once the hit has been made I will message you with a picture or a video and the remaining balance must be paid in full.

A second hit-man site sounds like a Hollywood Russian mafioso wrote it. “It is mutual interest to make everything anonymously,” he warns, insisting, “it is not a joke.” He gives careful instructions on how to pay through Bitcoins (more on this soon) and reiterates the need for total anonymity on both sides of the transaction. “I don’t know you and you don’t know me.” If these sites are jokes, they are convincingly conceived. Moving on from the hit men, there are firearm salesmen, hackers for hire (“destroy your enemies!”), an extensive list of Bitcoin traders, illegal gambling sites, white supremacist blogs, whistle-blowing blogs, new world order conspiracy chat rooms, transnational activists, Anonymous operation forums, hacker/phreaker communities, and porn. Oh, the porn. Genital mutilation, necrophilia, zoophilia, watersports, etc. Anything you can imagine is at your fingertips. Which brings us to child pornography. I don’t have the guts or inclination to click through to any of these sites, but they’re there. And according to people hanging out on 4chan, the stuff available from the Hidden Wiki is only a shallow fraction of what’s out there were one prone to dig deeper.

Perhaps the most notorious site available through Tor is the Silk Road, a black market where users can find 340 different illegal drugs: weed, cocaine, heroin—a digital bazaar of pills, tabs, and powders. If I wanted, I could easily order up a smorgasbord of illicit substances and have it delivered within a few days. You have to pay a Bitcoin just to browse the site—its inaccessibility keeps out most looky-loos. The site doesn’t have everything, of course. You won’t find any chemicals that are easily weaponized. Sellers promote their wares through a reputation system that isn’t much different from the one popularized by eBay. The site only accepts Bitcoins, which, along with mandatory Tor usage, help to ensure the anonymity of buyers and sellers. The Silk Road is one of many hubs for black-market drug trade on the deep Web. It’s difficult to tell if the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) is going to crack down on this sort of thing, or if we’re peering into the future. Anonymizing applications and efforts to pierce such software seem to be progressing apace.

Freenet is another piece of software used to mask identity online. It’s been downloaded over 2 million times. Freenet’s creator, Ian Clarke, is concerned about the freedom to communicate. He grew up in the south of Ireland in the ‘80s in a family of Protestants, whom he says are fastidious about staying out of Irish politics. From a young age he was interested in understanding people who held different views.

I remember reading [Sinn F?in’ leader] Gerry Adams’s autobiography at a time when most people considered him a terrorist. I can remember that if he was interviewed on TV they had to use an actor to do a voiceover, because it was illegal to broadcast his actual voice. It wasn’t that I agreed with Gerry Adams’ beliefs or actions, but I did feel that it was far more productive to understand where people are coming from, to try to step into their shoes, rather than simply demonizing them, which was official government policy at that time. It left me with a strong sense of the futility of censorship, and the value of free communication.

My experience with Freenet’s “Linkageddon,” one of several directories, is similar to that of Tor’s Hidden Wiki. Some of it is innocuous (Bob Chapman’s Financial Analysis), some of it funny (Anti–Harry Potter fundamentalists), and some of it horrific (ubiquitous underage porn). Everything looks like an old Geocities page.

Clarke describes Freenet like a decentralized postal system, where people carry each other’s mail. For instance, you need to get a letter to your friend Bob in Boston, and your friend Diane is going to Boston for a business trip. You give Diane your letter and have her hand off the letter to James, who happens to live in Bob’s neighborhood. The system is decentralized and doesn’t rely on any one person more than the others. If Bob can’t deliver your letter, you might ask Cheryl, who will be passing through Boston as well. The advantages to this system are such that James doesn’t have to know who’s sending the letter, and there’s no central postal hub that can restrict the delivery of mail through censorship or incapacity. According to research by Freedom House, Freenet is one of the most popular anonymity systems used in China. This was no accident. Clarke says that he intended for the software to be used by activists.

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Comments on “Navigating The Deep, Dark Web”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I am very interested why there are now two (and more coming, I’m sure!) that mention that exposure of this information is ‘bad’.

Yes, there are terrible things to be found on darknet, but these can be found on the normal web as well if one were to look hard enough.

You must not forget that all of these are side-effects to what is essentially a life-saving service to both civilian and military people all over the world who are trying to pass information even in the most dire circumstances when detection would mean certain death.

TOR, just like any other technology, is a tool. It’s all about how it is used, and it has (and in case of Syria, Iran, China, etc…) is being used to relay what otherwise would be information that can lead to death.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Honestly, TOR, Freenet, I2P, etc are well known. Probably not by the general populace, but anyone who has been dealing with internet security and police enforcement.
While there is always going to be illegal activities on these dark webs, it’s also a necessity. Child Porn might be horrible, but is Falun Gong also in the same category? The difference is subjective by where you live and the laws that you must abide to. When you hear of N. Korean kids listening to PSY, Tara, etc from S. Korea, this can only be possible because of these types of services. While it might not have much of an impact now, there could be a general change due to familiarity of culture later in life.
Not all of the sites are for wacko’s either, there’s a well known site about the tunnels below Virgina Tech on TOR. People like Brian Krebs, also use these networks to help find vulnerabilities to protect the rest of us.
I guess it’s sort of like Chiba City in Neuromancer, a place known for illegal activities that is tolerated to see what is coming out of it.

The Ultimate Anonymous Coward says:

Seems like it wouldn't inconvenience law enforcement much.

Seems like it wouldn’t inconvenience law enforcement much. Not where it matters, anyway. The hitman has to go to his target. The drug mule has to deliver to some location. Both of them can walk right into a trap if the cops set up a sting, and the drug mule can be pressured (and offered witness protection) to roll on those higher up the food chain.

Almost everything illicit except the kiddy smut, and everything that can do direct harm to people, can be dealt with similarly. As for the smut, that’s not the harm, it’s the evidence they can use to track down the ones doing actual harm.

Bengie says:

the fuck

I personally believe that these “underbellies” are caused by society. There will always be come people who are f’d up, but by pushing them underground, you only make the matter worse.

If we addressed the root of the problems, like lack of good education, people caring about each-other, etc, these issues would rarely happen.

I guess what I’m saying is if people had good education, didn’t grow up in a home with one parent that wasn’t over-worked, and the law system was considered “fair”, these corner case people would mostly disappear. All of these issues are because of society failing.

F! says:

freedom means freedom

The article seems a bit sensationalist and more than a bit obsessed with child porn.

So-called child porn is only a small slice of the darknet (just like the ‘public’ web is part of), and easily avoided if you’re not looking for it. Again, just like the public web, just like real life.

Using anonymity tools like Tor (which, as the article wisely notes, is only partially effective when used on it’s own) is merely a way to access the web as it should be. We have already lost a large part of the free and open internet as it is.

That old chestnut, “I may disiagree with what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it” applies not only to speech, but to every aspect of living in a free & open society. Child porn (to follow the article’s lead) is a tragic and sad aspect of humanity, but a small price to pay for freedom. The alternative is what we see now – ever accelerating erosion of our rights.

Freedom with limits is not freedom.

Anonymous Coward says:

Might pay to actually read all of the 'article'

Why? Because at the beginning it explains that this is an excerpt from a book. That’s right, tender lumplings, this is not an article, per se. It is an excerpt that we are meant to discuss as just that, yet we see people calling out Techdirt for ‘sensationalist reporting.’ Please, at least understand exactly what it is you are replying to when you do response.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:


These ‘expose’ articles sound like something from the panic fear mongering traditional news media would write about. For shame Techdirt, I thought you were better then that.

As stated (clearly?) at the top, this is not a “Techdirt” article but an excerpt from a book, which we’ll be discussing with the author.

We don’t have to agree with everything. Part of the point is to have a discussion about this with the author.

nospacesorspecialcharacters (profile) says:


I’ve always wondered why the media, politicians, police and courts will make a brouhaha over things like inappropriate twitter jokes, organising protest and riots on facebook etc… when a world of torture, killing, abuse and anarchism is just a few clicks away.

You don’t even need a proxy, tor or vpn in most cases (that’s to hide from the authorities – but the authorities don’t need to hide).

So when I see things like a twitter troll arrested… I just think to myself – wait they still don’t know about 4chan?

I have a few theories but none seem to fit universally.

1) They really are that dumb. They’re so technologically illiterate that they’re think trolling is as bad as it gets (coupled with the fact they only seem to notice when a VIP is trolled).

2) The authorities are technologically aware and are actively working with admins (voluntarily or involuntarily by dangling reduced sentences) to report and capture the crims. As observed with Craigslist, honeypots etc… They don’t publicise it because they don’t want to become the focus of the media and thus shine a light on their questionable evidence procedures.

3) The authorities are aware but are sort of powerless to control it due to the aforementioned anonymising technologies outside of baiting the unaware and foolish. Therefore they don’t mention these sites in the media as it would put more pressure on them to “something must be done” on something that can’t be done, and the resulting Streisand Effect of giving these sites publicity (that assumes they even understand the concept of the Streisand Effect).

4) They just don’t care and there is plenty of low hanging fruit in the form of nabbing trolls, idiots and innocents on twitter and facebook for easy wins and good publicity.

So perhaps less of a darknet and more of a dorknet, based on either sheer ignorance or cynical attempt to keep society at large ignorant.

Anonymous Coward says:

Seems like it wouldn't inconvenience law enforcement much.

Ah, but the powers that be don’t do those sorts of traps these days. They attack the digital infrastructure instead (e.g. Craigslist), letting the drug pushers and pedophiles get away scot-free to set up shop in an even more secure location.

Whether they’re on the take, trying to perpetuate the problem they’re the solution to, or just plain stupid, is a matter of speculation. The fact remains that while all of those things could be dealt with by law enforcement, they won’t be.

Trav says:

That’s some shocking news. I’ve heard various rumors about Tor and other hidden networks before, but I’ve never actually believed that the criminal activity there is so common. I thought this networks was for cryptography freaks and paranoids.
What is also interesting is the legal side of using such software. I heard that you can be arrested for any content that passing your computer if you opened a node or a gate instead of just using it as a proxy. Is it true?
Also it would be interesting to know if i2p is different from these two, being more network than obfuscating device.

Anonymous Coward says:

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