Since the first iterations of the Internet came into existence in the 1970s, there have been movements of people dedicated to using it for free speech. As the Internet has grown, so have the technologies that track our purchases, suggest content based on our browsing history, and locate people remotely. Because the Internet is merely code, there are those who write their own code rather than use the status quo.
Much of what we know, or think we know, about the Dark Net is folklore and hearsay scooped out and presented to us on YouTube or the news. Usually these stories focus on the bizarre, gruesome, or illegal content available on the Dark Net.
However, I had heard murmuring over the years of the benign content available on the Dark Net as well. Things like Facebook as well as news platforms and sharing services are being developed for and by a community of people who are not criminals.
But why would people be on the Dark Net just checking email and keeping tabs on their family? More importantly, how did they get there? Come to think of it, how do I get there?
What is the Dark Net?
According to a Google search, “The Internet is a massive network of networks, a networking infrastructure.” Thanks, Google.
Think of the Internet like a giant iceberg. The very tip is what we can find by using a search engine like Google. The rest, the deep web, is underwater and composed of everything unreachable to pretty much everyone — a digital land of email inboxes, private documents, and other weird computer processes. However, sites on the Dark Net require a certain service to reach — The Onion Router (Tor).
Tor was originally created in the mid-90s by US Naval Research Laboratory employees to keep their transmissions secret. The Dark Net came about as the public began to utilize Tor technology and by 2015 the term itself had become the unofficial appellation for most Tor-based services.
Former Google employee and local programming wizard, Percival Fauncewater, elaborates: “Since dark web sites are only accessible over certain software, Tor, they aren’t considered part of the normal indexable web — so Google doesn’t index them. Plus a lot of the content is illegal, and even if Google did show the legal stuff, normal users wouldn’t be able to connect [without Tor].”
When browsing with Tor, your device is routed through a number of servers, encrypted at each turn, before reaching its destination. Your identity is effectively shuffled into the deck of outgoing and incoming requests, from all over the world, successfully granting you a fair amount of anonymity.
Aided by Fauncewater’s technical knowhow, everything needed to connect to the Dark Net was downloaded legally and for free onto a 16GB flash drive. Beyond Tor software, we utilized a program called Tails, and another called PGP.
“They are separate technologies but they are being used together, think of Tails as Windows and Tor as Chrome,” said Fauncewater. PGP or Pretty Good Privacy, is basically your security system, capable of encrypting and compressing.
Before crossing the point of no return, I was directed to a most handy tool – The Hidden Wiki. The Hidden Wiki is a beginner’s directory of Dark Net website addresses separated into categories ranging from drugs and blogs to marketplace financial services. An important category is Hidden Service Lists and Search Engines, because you know, no Google.
A few sites were selected from The Hidden Wiki and shortly thereafter I was on the notorious Dark Net. The sheer thrill of being on the same network of networks as WikiLeaks, the (possibly) late Julian Assange, and the hacktivist group Anonymous quickly waned as I processed what I was seeing.
Need a Torch?
I sat facing nothing save a blank page reminiscent of Mozilla, the program from which it was developed. I couldn’t believe how anticlimactic it was at first. The muscle memory of Google searching is so great that I instinctually clicked on the address bar and typed “Donald Trump.” After skimming through tons of results, I realized my search only accessed the normal net… right, no Google.
Luckily The Hidden Wiki had an address for Torch, a Dark Net search engine. Using Torch was like returning to the mid-90s – it didn’t find much because there wasn’t much to be found that way.
However, when searching for “Corvallis” I found a hacking manual for beginners with telnet numbers (used to remotely access computers) for Corvallis, Eugene, Salem, and places all over the country. It seemed dated, but it was for beginners…
While searching for local movements, a surprising number of discussion threads popped up including an extended debate on the pros and cons of launching a new white society in Namibia. Africa is clearly the best place to start an Aryan nation, they say, because the population density is so low that supplanting current residents would be easy.
One commentator did bring up a very good point: “How are we going to reproduce, you do know it’s going to be a sausage party right?”
After finding some more up-to-date Dark Net repositories, it seemed only natural to check out the drug trade. Options are staggering, so I decided on the comically named Smokeables Finest Organic Cannabis to check the going rates. Surprisingly at $200 an ounce and $5 shipping, it’s about the same as having a medical card… minus the $200 registration fee.
Next I dropped by Brainmagic Psychedelics and found 10 hits of 150ug LSD runs you about $100. For the same price however, you could instead purchase 1 gram of DMT or mescaline. Brainmagic assures us that “All products are tested by ourself and reagent or lab tested!”
Most Dark Net transactions use the futuristic cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies are a huge topic with many ramifications both on the net and in the real world, so the currency exchange sites were a must-see.
I was going to exchange a prepaid debit card and tell you about what I bought, but as it turns out 1 Bitcoin (Ƀ) is currently worth $916.39. It only recently dropped below $1,000. Since the lowest exchangeable denomination was $50, I decided not to enter my bank account info.
I will mention that the most upsetting content I saw was the depressingly robust selection of JailBait sites. No, I did not enter them, but within one single repository the leading JailBait site had over 300,000 active users, the runner-up boasted nearly 60,000, while the rest had a measly 12,000-20,000.
Yet beyond these cliché examples of Dark Net content there is still more, and not all as negative. Discussion boards and idea sharing are central aspects of Dark Net culture. Imagine 4Chan and Reddit — but instead of r/The_Donald, you might find the Anarcho-Syndacist Brigade discussing the benefits of anarchy or communism.
There are news sites, political blogs, art sharing, philosophy discussion threads, book exchanges, and although I haven’t seen it, Fauncewater tells me there is a site dedicated to sharing muffin recipes. Facebook has implemented ways for people to sign in from Tor, SAGAINT is just one example of an email service that can communicate between the Dark Net and Clearnet, and a Russian company even began selling coffee on the Dark Net in later 2016.
The Dark Net was much more interesting to me as a venue for discussions and sharing than as a hub of criminal activity. Although it is both, the shocking content often makes for better stories, overshadowing the little understood positive aspects.
My impression is that to maximize your experience on the Dark Net, do your homework. You are presented with pretty much nothing when launching Tor, so you must have some idea of what you want to do and how to get there.
Searching is harder than one would expect without a powerful and all-encompassing search engine like Google and a community dedicated to not easily being found. On the other hand each good find is even more rewarding and spikes your curiosity. Just please, don’t go on r/DarknetMarkets and ask where to get drugs.
They will know if you are a noob and you may get this: “You ask for too much, too complicated, too soon.”
The whole thing reminds me of a big city. Downtown Google is well lit with public transit, police, and familiar people. Then there are the dark alleys where you might score a joint, you might get scammed, or you might just meet someone really interesting. Often people spend time in these dark places not because they are immoral, but because it’s somehow quieter or because they simply don’t want their professional and private lives to be known by everyone.
When asked what interest he had in the Dark Net as a programmer, Fauncewater said, “For me this technology is really cool because the same technology that allows the Dark Web enables things like Bitcoin and the Tor browser which lets people that would want to hide from their government — like journalists — be protected on the Internet. So the technology that allows some of this really good stuff can also be used for really bad stuff, which is almost true of any technology or software out there.”
Ultimately I think the Dark Net is only a tiny blip on most of our radars right now, but it’s the Wild West for many, and for others still it is the front line of a digital arms race. Anyone can figure out how to download all the programs and connect, but to do business or create tools that other Dark Net folks would use takes both technical skill and integration into those communities — but if issues of security, privacy, or pushing the limits of technology fascinate you, the Dark Net has your fix.
By Anthony Vitale
Don’t Want to Get Hacked?
Six Steps to Jumpstart Your Security
Between surfing the web in a coffee shop and sending important emails at work, information about ourselves is constantly being shared -— our interests, who we spend time with, financial information, and images -— and everything can be found in the great repository of the Internet.
For as long as computer networks have been around, digital attacks have been on the rise. With every new bit of technology, there are already people waiting to find ways to use it for criminal activity. Do some quick Internet searching and you will find some pretty extreme numbers – 90 million computer attacks on US companies and an estimated $3 trillion lost to cyber-schemes worldwide. That was just last year.
The good news is, a lot of attacks that sweep up everyday users result from common mistakes that can be avoided. The following list has been compiled from knowledgeable sources. It’s a great place to start if you’re looking to secure yourself.
• Use a unique password on every site. It’s so common for people to use a single password across multiple sites, that when one is compromised, they often find that their other major accounts have been accessed as well.
• Use hard to guess passwords when coming up with unique passwords. The longer and more complex the better; most secure logins nowadays allow for letters, numbers, symbols and case sensitivity. Think you’ll have trouble remembering? Try LastPass, Dashlane or another password manager.
• Wonder why some sites like Gmail and Facebook ask you to register your phone? This is part of multi-factor authentication, commonly referred to as 2 factor authentication (2FA). In order to gain access to a service using 2FA, someone would need not only your password, but physical access to a device like your phone. Use this whenever it is offered.
• Be wary of any Wi-Fi connection you don’t own, even if the network requires a password. If you’re truly concerned about snooping, look into paying for a VPN (virtual private network) or proxy service to help mask incoming and outgoing data. There are many such services available, with new ones popping up weekly.
• Don’t leave your devices unattended – there are ways to circumvent all of these tips if an undesirable person gets their hands on your electronics.
• Be suspicious, and be skeptical. An email or link sound a little funny? It probably is, and there are many, many scams along these lines designed to compromise your passwords and other data.
By Anthony Vitale