Drug-Dealers, Hitmen And Prostitution: Welcome To The Dark Web

The shady corners of the internet where the criminal underworld hangs out.

Peter Iantorno May 20, 2015

Would you believe us if we told you that there is a place where illegal drugs and firearms are bought and sold freely, sports matches can be fixed on demand, prostitutes advertise their services openly and hitmen can be hired at a moment’s notice?

What if we told you that it is not some kind of downtown ghetto or Pablo Escobar-style drugs compound, and, in fact, anyone can go there without even leaving their own home? Welcome to the Dark Web: the deepest, darkest corners of the internet where anything goes and everything is anonymous.

So, what exactly is the Dark Web? Well, experts in the field, BrightPlanet, sum it up nicely on their website, which lays out the structure of the internet. “The Surface Web is anything that a search engine can find, while the Deep Web is anything that a search engine can’t find,” and within this Deep Web lies a much smaller yet far more sinister collection of websites called the Dark Web, “which has been intentionally hidden, and is therefore inaccessible through normal web browsers.”

Surprisingly, this online hideaway where the world’s criminal underbelly hangs out was actually created by the very people who are now racking their brains and pumping in millions of dollars per year to come up with ways of getting it under control: the US government.

It started in 2003, with an idea from US Naval researchers to create a system that would allow users to access the internet without divulging their identities or, in fact, anything about themselves. Without getting too technical, this involved a lot of layers of encryption obscuring the data being passed back and forth between internet users and servers, making the users completely anonymous.

Silk Road became the Amazon of the Dark Web’s drug trade, serving almost a million customers worldwide, taking in a staggering $1.2 billion worth of revenue and turning an estimated profit of almost $80 million.

Originally called The Onion Router, due to its many layers (but now shortened to Tor), this secret browser facilitated all manner of actions that were of great help to the US government – from covert military communications, to police sting operations. However, as with many new technologies, Tor was vulnerable, and when clever programmers realised there was a completely anonymous platform available, it was only a matter of time before sections of the Deep Web went dark.

By 2006, The Deep Web had started to get out of hand, with drug deals, illegal pornography, hitmen, prostitutes, hackers for hire and even terrorists all finding their way into the secluded nooks and crannies it provided to do their sordid, dirty deals. It was the internet equivalent of a cute puppy growing into a giant Rottweiler, growling, snarling and impossible to control.

There have been a few breakthroughs over the years, with some illegal websites – notably a site that called itself The Farmer’s Market, and became massive, selling every illegal drug one would care to imagine internationally – eventually slipping up and having their operations shut down. However, for every failure, hundreds more new sites spring up, learning from the mistakes of the old ones and filling the void left behind.

Much like in reputable businesses on the surface web, competition to be the top dog on the Dark Web was fierce, and in 2011 one website found the perfect recipe for success, becoming the Dark Web’s biggest platform where users could buy and sell illegal drugs, fake IDs and sometimes even firearms – all, of course, completely anonymously: Silk Road

Over a period of some two and a half years, Silk Road became the Amazon of the Dark Web’s drug trade, serving almost a million customers worldwide, taking in a staggering $1.2 billion worth of revenue and turning an estimated profit of almost $80 million.

The huge success of Silk Road was down to two main factors. First off, instead of traditional currency and payment systems such as Paypal, which is how The Farmer’s Market was eventually tripped up, Silk Road took its payments in bitcoins. Now, if you’re not quite sure what they are, read our full bitcoin article, but in short, bitcoin is basically an online currency that is virtually anonymous, nigh-on impossible to counterfeit and absolutely perfect for anyone wanting to do business on the quiet.

So, where once the government was able to follow the money and track down the people behind the transactions, suddenly, thanks to the slippery online currency of bitcoin, the cash trail had gone cold.

The other hurdle that had tripped up many shady sites operating on the Dark Web was trust – or lack thereof. It’s no surprise that when doing dodgy deals involving contraband items and shady characters, people aren’t naturally inclined to hand over their hard earned cash – or bitcoins. However, Silk Road managed to overcome this by taking a cue from the likes of Amazon and eBay and introducing a rating and review system, just like any legitimate selling sites would, whereby anyone who got too many bad reviews would simply be shunted down to the bottom of the sellers’ list and people would refuse to do business with them.

The operation was working spectacularly, with the site founder, who was known only as ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, raking in millions. The FBI knew all about the site, but such was the level of security they could do nothing to stop it. That is until Dread Pirate Roberts, real name Ross Ulbricht, made the fatal error of listing his real email address when advertising on a bitcoin forum for someone to come onboard and help him in the business.

Immediately the FBI traced the address, which led them to Ulbricht, who they had surveilled and then ultimately arrested on July 26, 2013. The website was closed down but it took until February this year for Ulbricht’s case to be taken to trial. Charged with seven felony offenses including money laundering, narcotics and a ‘kingpin’ charge usually reserved for mob bosses, he was found guilty on all counts and faces a minimum of 30 years and a maximum of life in prison, although Ulbricht’s defence team has already said it plans to appeal the case.

It is a small victory for the authorities, but already there are untold numbers of other sites stepping into the shoes of Silk Road, learning from its mistakes and running an even tighter ship than the one that preceded them.

While it may seem like the Deep Web is some evil hideaway where the scum of the Earth go to cover their sordid tracks, in a world where massive multinational companies build their whole businesses around extracting internet users’ personal information and selling that information to other companies, the element of privacy on the internet is something that is definitely needed. Unfortunately, while the normal or ‘surface’ internet provides nowhere near enough privacy, the Dark Web, it seems, provides far too much.