There is a lot of information out there about what the Dark Net is and what it isn’t. In simple terms, the Dark Net is the portion of the Deep Web frequented by people who want to be online anonymously for a variety of reasons, including a range of illegal behaviors and political activism. The term Deep Web was used going back in the 1970s to describe networks that were kept isolated from the Pentagon’s secure ARPANET. The ARPANET, a network designed to allow Pentagon computers to communicate with one another, evolved into the World Wide Web we all use today.
What’s now known as the Deep Web is mostly the remnants of the early World Wide Web, sort of left behind in favor of today’s Surface Web of Amazon, Facebook, Google and all the other daily online activity of the Internet. Most Deep Web material was never registered with the standard search engines leaving it inaccessible to casual queries. The Dark Net can be accessed with special software created by the United States Navy to keep its online presence secret from prying eyes such as foreign intelligence services.
10. The Mighty Tor
The U.S. Navy wanted a way to use the Internet anonymously so its people couldn’t be tracked by the nation’s enemies. It developed software called The Onion Router or TorBrowser, the gateway to Tor Hidden Services on the Dark Net. “Onion” was chosen because its encryption properties were likened to the layers of an onion being peeled away.
The Tor browser works by rerouting Internet traffic through several proxy servers around the world, encrypting and decrypting the traffic before sending it to its final destination. The Navy realized it needed to open this technology up to the public to protect their anonymity so in 2002, the Tor software was made available for download on the Internet. By some estimates, there are that about one million people accessing the Dark Net every day.
9. Internet Pirates
One of the many pastimes on the Dark Net is the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted intellectual property. The music and movie industries have been fighting pitched battles with pirates for decades, but more recently the Dark Net has become an important safe harbor where they can sell their illicit treasure.
Many millennials are somewhat ambivalent about the legitimacy of intellectual property laws going back to the music file sharing controversy spawned by Napster in the 1990s. The affected industries have fought back with increasingly sophisticated software called digital rights management technology. However, with the pace of information technology innovation, the corporations seem to always be a step behind the pirates so the Dark Net’s black markets seem to have a bright future.
8. We Are in Control
There have been rumors bouncing around the Internet for years that beyond its intelligence activities on the Dark Net, it has set up a back up command and control infrastructure there. The theory is that the Pentagon needed to hedge its bets knowing that its first line command and control systems could be in jeopardy in the event of a serious cyber attack. It’s always better to have redundant systems when faced with a range of dangerous threats.
Russia and China as well as terrorists and criminal gangs have been probing and attacking U.S. government sites for years, sometimes with considerable success. Some people contend it’s all just a conspiracy theory that grew out of the fact that the Pentagon created and still funds Tor. As the inventors of the browser, however, who would know how to manipulate it for its own purposes better than the U.S. Military?
7. Gone Trolling
Trolls insinuate themselves in the recesses of the Dark Net waiting for their next victims. These scofflaws are not of the Lord of the Rings variety, but more on the idea of renegade fisherman, dragging virtual baited hooks through the flotsam until they get a nibble. Dark Net trolls would likely reject this characterization, preferring to see themselves as web cowboys roaming the wild net unfettered by the conformist Surface Web.
The truth is much more bland: they’re often socially awkward young men who get their kicks engaging in creepy and cruel behavior on blogs and social media sites where they prey on the naive and uninformed. The trolls hide their real identities with encryption technology and phony personas. They take cheap shots anonymously in cyberspace, knowing they wouldn’t have the courage to confront people in the real world.
Like any niche community, the denizens of the Dark Net have their own way of doing and not doing things. One of the things they don’t do is use money. You’d have to be pretty naive to put anything personal on the Dark Net, let alone credit or banking information. In what’s being called a “bitcoin heist,” drug dealers reportedly lost as much as $12 million in bitcoins held in escrow when the drug marketplace Evolution Market disappeared from the Dark Net overnight.
For those who are interested in bitcoins, there are tutorials online on how to set up a series of accounts with wallets on the Surface Web and the Dark Net. You can learn how to make transactions with the cryptocurrency, in particular ways referred to as tumbling or mixing. These methods essentially launder the bitcoins – obscuring a person’s link to the transactions.
5. A Darker Shade of Black
The Internet is all about freedom of expression, but with this freedom comes the potential for abuse. The Dark Net has become a haven to some of the darkest behavior, especially when it comes to disturbing content involving minors.
Law enforcement agencies around the world expend a great deal of resources trying to track down the people behind dark sites that traffic in images of child sexual abuse. There are also discussions on the Internet about the supposed existence of snuff films that are available on the Dark Net. However, like much of the information on the Internet, it can be difficult to separate urban legend from fact.
4. Islamic State in Cyberspace
Unfortunately, some members of Islamic State have prodigious cyber skills, using their talents to distribute propaganda and recruit followers. One of the reasons counterterrorism officials have had trouble taking down IS sites is that they can be hard to find. The same encryption technology used by drug dealers, spies and pedophiles is being used by Militant Islamist groups to evade detection on the Internet.
U.S. and ally intelligence services aren’t completely in the dark on how to fight IS in cyberspace, but the public will likely be kept in the dark about most of the details as the fight continues. The State Department initiated a kind of counter trolling program in 2012. By engaging potential recruits on the blogs and chat rooms with appeals to morality and common sense, the program hopes to turn them away from IS and other terrorist groups.
3. The Armory
Weapons of all kind are big sellers on the Dark Net. The Armory is the site most familiar to people probably because it is an offshoot of the the infamous Silk Road drug bazaar. Many people assume the Armory’s operations are illegal, but the U.S. Justice Department admits there is no federal law outlawing online gun sales. The site offers everything from Glock handguns to AK-47 rifles and hand grenades.
In a 2014 interview with vocative.com, a spokesman for the Armory defended the site against complaints it had repeatedly scammed customers out of their money. The spokesman also responded to a question about who the Armory will and won’t sell to with a long list of terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. But given the nature of transactions on the Dark Net, it remains unclear how the site confirms who its buyers actually are.
2. Silk Road
Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison on May 29, 2015 in a U.S. Federal Court for his conviction on charges related to operating the Dark Net drug site known as Silk Road. Prosecutors alleged Ulbricht, referred to as “the kingpin of a worldwide digital drug trafficking enterprise,” had solicited several murders for hire.
For three years, the Silk Road was considered the eBay of the illegal drug trade, providing a wide selection of products including cocaine, marijuana and heroine. The site offered product reviews from users and generally enjoyed a good reputation with its clientele. When the FBI shut it down, drug dealers scurried to fill the void and scoop up Silk Road’s customers. Unfortunately, law enforcement was not left untainted by the Silk Road. On August 31, 2015 a former Secret Service Agent pled guilty to stealing $820,000 in bitcoin during the course of the investigation.
Hackers are a big part of the Dark net, selling their expertise to anyone who will pay. But these mercenary hackers for hire are small potatoes compared to the shadowy group known as “Anonymous.” How many people comprise the group? Where are they? And what is their real agenda? All remain open questions.
What is clear, however, is that this hacking collective or gang of “hacktivists” have been quite effective at attacking a number of private and government sites with distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS.) Its growing list of targets includes the U.S., China, Great Britain and Canada. The group is usually portrayed as a criminal enterprise or even terrorists hunted by government agents. However, it has also been seen as a force for good on occasion, most notably when Anonymous hackers enticed criminals to unknowingly download tracking software then posted their identities online.