Unearthing the deep Web

| Senior Scene Editor

Silk Road is one of many sites accessible only through the Deep Web, the part of the Internet that is neither indexible nor searchable. Silk Road essentially acts as an Amazon-like marketplace specializing in drugs.

Silk Road is one of many sites accessible only through the Deep Web, the part of the Internet that is neither indexible nor searchable. Silk Road essentially acts as an Amazon-like marketplace specializing in drugs.

Curiosity is not a sin, but it’s a weakness. Thanks to the World Wide Web, many of us have sat in front of computer monitors for hours to satisfy our inquisitiveness. The Age of Information is a click away. But have you ever wondered how the stranger stories about the Internet arise? For example, how does Wikileaks, the controversial source of leaked information, obtain classified documents? How do the Taliban and other terrorist organizations host websites that the U.S. cannot shut down? The answers lie at least partially in the deep Web, the virtual frontier. And what a risk it is to explore it.

Let’s say we could print a book containing every single website indexed by Google. It’d be a pretty hefty volume, and the data within would far exceed all the information in the Library of Congress. These indexed sites constitute the surface Web. In contrast, the deep Web, also known as the Invisible Web, the Hidden Web or DarkNet, comprises all the websites that a search engine like Google cannot index. It’s big. Really big. If we were to print off the Dark Web, it would be about 400 times thicker than the surface Web.

Most of the deep Web is boring, raw, uninterrupted data sans hyperlinks. A regular computer cannot gain access to most of the information, as the data are stored in private databases. Yet, other parts of the deep Web contain private sites, and many are similar to familiar surface websites. The most easily accessed sites reside in the Tor Network. Tor is a program that allows a user to browse the Web privately and, most importantly, access the Tor Network, a hidden network within the deep Web.

Tor assigns the user a “false identity” for browsing the web. When the user requests a website, Tor relays the data between lots of different computers also connected to the Tor Network. In theory, someone monitoring the Internet could not determine the identity of the server and the requester. The many blankets of security are often compared to the layers of an onion, and they guarantee virtual anonymity. This is partially the reason why the government cannot shut down terrorist sites; they do not know the identity of the server. Unlike the URLs of surface websites that commonly end in “.com” or “.org,” websites of the Tor network often contain “.onion.” In an even further departure from surface Web convention, the URLs of Tor websites are never easy words to remember like “studlife.com” or “wustl.edu.” Rather, they are a randomly generated string of letters and numbers, like “http://ci3hn2uzjw2wby2z.onion.”

After installing Tor, the first .onion website I visited was a forum, and I immediately clicked on a discussion labeled “What brings you to Tor?” The anonymous responses varied, but a single theme persisted. One poster wrote “To me, Tor is freedom of speech. It makes me able to speak freely, and I live in an occident country.” Another poster who identified himself as a schoolteacher also praised the freedom. “Tor helps me keep up an anonymous blog where I can be free to criticize anything, including things about the California education system, without fear of reprisal. THANKS TOR!!!” the teacher said. Other remarks about personal liberty were more unusual, even paranoid. “[I use TOR for] protection from the new world order people. I don’t think the outer world is dangerous yet for people that are merely interesting to the NWO, but better be in security,” the user attested.

The slightly less-crazy posters have a point: The anonymity afforded by the deep Web is an invaluable resource. During the Arab Spring, revolutionary Egyptians used Tor to circumvent the interference of Mubarak’s government. Whistle-blowers rely on Tor as well, especially if relaying information to Wikileaks.

The frequenters of the deep Web have a strange camaraderie. Another post of the forum explored the possibility of an anonymous social network. The community is an anti-Facebook of sorts; Zuckerberg’s brainchild learns more personal details every day, and the deep Web clique is a reaction to that invasion.

Fascinatingly, this society has developed a hidden and wholly unfettered economy, a Libertarian’s dream. Of course, the deep Web provides ample opportunity for piracy. I stumbled upon a sizable library of books. It was a little jarring to find the “Harry Potter” series just a few rows away from books about Sept. 11 conspiracy theories or instructions on how to make crude explosives.

But not everything on the deep Web is completely free. Using Bitcoins, an anonymous and encrypted currency, users are free to buy and sell whatever they wish. Money is arguably the root of all evil. Once I found sites with prices in Bitcoins, the deep Web grew seedier. Since .onion websites are hard to find, I was lucky to stumble into a hub of hyperlinks to other sites on the deep Web, called the Hidden Wiki. This wiki not only provides links to other .onion sites but short descriptions as well, so fortunately I avoided any pornography. It proved a good jumping-off point, especially for discovering the more unusual sites.

The Silk Road, an anonymous marketplace specializing in controlled substances, is probably the most notorious site of the deep Web. It’s eBay for drugs. And everything is priced in Bitcoins. The value of Bitcoins varies per day; during my visit, one Bitcoin equaled $4.04. Five grams of ecstasy? 85.27 Bitcoins, please. A fake Illinois Driver’s License? That’ll cost you 38.53…Bitcoins, of course. Like on markets of the surface Web, patrons publish reviews of the vendor’s service. Quick deliveries and discrete packaging are a must for a five-star rating.

There were other sites of questionable repute as well. One site, run by the “Buttery Bootlegger” offers to steal goods for a reduced price. The Buttery Bootlegger specializes in snagging remote-controlled helicopters from Toys “R” Us. Other sites promised to launder money for a small Bitcoins fee. The deep Web is an ungovernable domain, with no consequences for the anonymous. Before I knew it, things got scary.

I wound up on a site about human experimentation. Like the Nazi experiments. A site reporting the progress of several experiments on unconsenting men, women and children. Experiments like a fetus’s tolerance of bleach. Experiments like the deprivation of food, water or medication. “Not all humans are equal, for some of them were born superior to others,” proclaimed the site’s banner. The victims are homeless and unregistered citizens. Welcome to your first time on DarkNet.

That first forum, the idealistic one about freedom and anonymity, had another theme on a second consideration. A lot of commenters were interested in “CP” or “JB.” Thanks to the descriptions on the Hidden Wiki, I learned that these stand for “Child Pornography” and “Jail Bait,” which is pornography concerning subjects below age 18. As an entirely different poster explained, “The age of consent in my country is 14 but porn involving these girls is illegal. You can f— ‘em but you better not film it cuz the party van gonna come for ya. Stupid law.” Not everyone below the surface is a drug dealer, a terrorist or a pedophile, but there’s definitely a supportive community for the lawless in DarkNet.

I’ve seen things you would not believe. Personal ads by 20-something males “experienced with sex and [looking] to share with young girl.” I felt sick to my stomach after encountering online-gambling tables in which players bet on the death of an individual. Supposedly, the players hire assassins to ensure their bets are won. The prize is awarded in Bitcoins. There are markets on DarkNet, some claim, where they sell human flesh by the pound. For Bitcoins, of course.

Curiosity is vanity. I went to the deep Web to find the story about anonymity and anarchy, to write of freedom and unfettered capitalism. The story that grabbed me, though, was the underbelly of the Web. The Hidden Web is a box of secrets, waiting for a fool like me to witness its chaos. It’s possible of course, that some of the more awful sites are a result of an unhealthy sense of humor. That they are sites designed for some evil purpose to elicit a horrified response. It’s a lesser evil, sure, but exploitation is no laughing matter. My eyes are opened now, knowing good and evil. I am naked.

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