Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave

Exploring the deep web 


Need a hitman? Fake social security card? How about some mail-order heroin? Thanks to the Deep Web, you can obtain any of these with complete anonymity. Accessed through a browser called TOR, the Deep Web, has two distinct implications as it seeps into mainstream usage . On one hand, it’s a way for people to have unrestricted, anonymous access to the web; it allows people to access a vastly greater amount of data and utilities than is available on the “surface Web.” For some, the Deep Web represents freedom of information and anti-censorship, which is especially important in countries with extreme Internet restriction and control of information. On the other hand, the inability to be traced fosters pretty much every type of criminal behavior imaginable, and provides users with a possibly false sense of security.

Katie O'Brien / Kitsch Artist
Katie O’Brien / Kitsch Artist

Michael Bergman, who coined the term Deep Web, explains that “searching on the Internet today can be compared to dragging a net through the surface of the ocean: A great deal may be caught in the net, but there is a wealth of information that is deep and therefore missed.” Turns out, Google does not allow you to access all the content available on the Internet—far from it, actually. The Deep Web, also known as the Invisible Web, consists of that which cannot be accessed by a standard search engine; Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. only provide access to the “surface Web.” Search engines use web crawlers to systematically browse and index publicly available web pages, but there is far more to the Internet. According to BrightPlanet, an organization specializing in Deep Web intelligence and founded by Bergman, the surface Web contains about one billion individual documents, compared to the Deep Web’s 550 billion. BrightPlanet also states, “trying to wrap your mind around the Deep Web is like trying to imagine there is a whole other world with even more resources and living beings than on Earth. It’s territory unknown to most, yet it has potential for everyone.” So how does one access the Deep Web? Through a Deep Web browser—the most popular being TOR, which has web addresses ending in “.onion” and is to the Deep Web what Firefox, Chrome, and other browsers are to the surface Web. Activity on the Deep Web is untraceable. TOR bounces web-browsing activity by hiding its origins through a technique called “onion routing.” On the surface Web, everything you do online can be traced back to your IP address. TOR routes all Internet activity through multiple decoy servers before arriving at the desired webpage. It is nested in layers of encryption (hence the onion metaphor), hiding its origin.

On the one hand, TOR’s gift of anonymity provides a way to combat Internet censorship and access information otherwise unavailable in countries with oppressive regimes. For example, the Turkish government recently banned access to Twitter after citizens posted evidence of government corruption. National Turk reports that the government is tightening its blockade, making it more difficult to avoid through simple means. A spokesmen stated, “Twitter is being systematically used for character assassination against the government.” People fear that YouTube will be banned next, as it refuses to comply when the Turkish government demands that certain clips be deleted. As a result of these recent restrictions, TOR usage has surged in Turkey. Recode.net reports that there are “more than double the number of Turkish users on the software [than] just days before the government instituted the ban.”

Internet censorship is not unique to Turkey. The OpenNet Initiative classifies the degree of filtration occurring in a country as “no evidence,” “suspected,” “selective,” “substantial,” or “pervasive.” Based on their system, there are twenty countries classified as having pervasive censorship, five countries with substantial censorship, and twenty-four countries with selective censorship. In March 2013, Reporters Without Borders named the five “State Enemies of the Internet” as Vietnam, Syria, Bahrain, Iran, and China. Gary King, a political scientist who conducted a study on patterns of censorship in China, concluded that Internet censorship by the Chinese government is the “most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented.” The Atlantic reports that King’s study showed that “objectionable posts are removed with a near-perfect elimination rate and typically within 24 hours of their posting” and that the censors focus their efforts on posts that attempt to instigate protests, demonstrations, or even mass gatherings that are not political. The militant system, known as the “Great Firewall of China,” blocks access to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and even successfully restricts people from using TOR. The process for a person in China to access TOR is much more complicated than normal, but it can be done.

As horrifying as the restriction in China sounds to the American ear, the western side of the word is not immune to Internet censorship either. It has recently made headlines that the UK instituted a porn filtration system. Comically, it also ended up blocking sex education and LGBT resource websites. While its purpose is to protect children online, and Internet users have the option of turning the filter off, many fear it is just the start of censorship in Great Britain. As for the United States and Canada, OpenNet Initiative reports, “while there is little technical filtering in either country, the Internet is subject to substantial state regulation in the United States and Canada. With respect to surveillance, the United States is believed to be among the most aggressive countries in the world in terms of listening to online conversations.” This is precisely the reason why Edward Snowden, after leaking documents revealing the scope of the NSA’s global surveillance programs, encouraged people to use TOR for their online communication. He stated that using TOR causes your telecommunications provider “to no longer spy on you by default, the way they do now, today, when you go to any website.” The Deep Web is currently the most powerful tool available for Internet users to circumvent censorship and surveillance.

But the cliché “with great power comes great responsibility” exists for a reason. Powerful does not mean foolproof, and anonymity does not exactly foster an environment where responsibility is a priority. The anonymity offered by the Deep Web amplifies the user’s feeling of security immeasurably and, consequently, the bullying rampant on the surface Web shifts to a straight-up crime infestation on the Deep Web. In December, we all heard about the Harvard Student who was charged with emailing bomb threats in the hope that finals would be delayed. Sophomore student, Eldo Kim, sent the emails through an anonymous email client called Guerrilla Mail, using TOR. However, he accessed TOR using Harvard’s wireless network, so while authorities could not see that he had sent the emails, they could see that he had accessed TOR at the time when the emails were sent. When confronted by the FBI, Kim confessed to having sent the bomb threats.

1398130617The Deep Web also provides the perfect platform for soliciting illegal services. While the Deep Web has been around for a decade, the recent shutdown of the massive online black market, Silk Road, has made illegal trafficking the most notorious facet of the Deep Web. With such categories on the front page as Apparel, Books, Digital Goods, Drug Paraphernalia, Electronics, Erotica, Forgeries, and Money, websites like Silk Road open up a whole word of illicit online shopping. Sometimes referred to as “the Amazon.com for illegal drugs,” Silk Road allowed its users to buy and sell drugs anonymously over the Internet using the decentralized online crypto-currency, Bitcoin. In October, the FBI shut down Silk Road and arrested Ross Ulbricht, whose alias on Silk Road was the Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR).

Apparently, the nail in Ulbricht’s coffin in the chain of events that led to his arrest was a simple amateur mistake made almost three years prior: in 2011, the year Silk Road was formed, the first few references to Silk Road on the Internet were made by a user named “altoid.” Later that year, a user named “altoid” posted on a forum about “a venture backed Bitcoin startup company” and told interested users to email “rossulbricht” on Gmail. Once officials linked Ulbricht to “altoid,” they were able to link him to Dread Pirate Roberts. This surface Web trail, along with numerous other mistakes, led to his eventual arrest. In July 2013, the FBI received a full copy of the Silk Road web server, giving them access to all transaction information and private messages. Inspection revealed that DPR had hired a hitman to kill a user who had hacked the site and attempted blackmail. It also revealed that DPR had completed a hit in the past. The content of this post from Reddit’s “SR shutdown fallout discussion” from October nicely sums up reactions to the event:

“The fact that they have a full transaction history is kind of worrying. I’ve only ever purchased relatively small amounts for personal use; it would kinda suck if they traced my bitcoins back to me. I’m fairly certain it’s possible. Given the volume of transactions it seems unlikely, but then again LE could just slowly work their way through the backlog.

Oh well!


Holy shit, DPR is such an arrogant fucking idiot. I’m reading the bit about how he arranged that hit. He did it all in fucking plaintext on the SR server. I’m never buying drugs on the Internet again; if I had thought for a second that DPR could be that big of an idiot, I’d have never used SR.

Edit 2:

OMFG! He gave away his time zone in a PM on the road! He also had admin access to the road tied to a VPN gateway that he logged into directly from an Internet cafe near his house! WTF? Why not TOR -> Gateway -> SR? Just goes to show, even the best crypto is useless if you don’t use it properly.”

When Silk Road shut down, people were panicking all over the Internet, wondering whether their drug purchases could be traced back to them, and some sellers did get arrested. While the case of Silk Road was extremely complex and covert, it shows that anonymity on the Deep Web is more fragile than we may think, and by no means immune to mistakes made out of arrogance.

That being said, it took the FBI a full two years to track down DPR and take control of Silk Road. Despite the discovery of the first Silk Road, about a month later, Silk Road 2.0 appeared and is still going strong. There are many other Deep Web black markets, but one could argue that a transaction between two consenting adults doesn’t harm anyone else. Buying and selling drugs on the Deep Web is child’s play compared to some of the other crimes that go on. These crimes, including but not limited to child pornography, human trafficking, assassins for hire, and snuff films are arguably worse than the Deep Web markets. All of these are in plain sight, yet law enforcement is still completely helpless to stop them. According to The Washington Post, the documents that Snowden leaked revealed that the NSA is working “around the clock to undermine TOR’s anonymity,” and that the State Department is helping fund the effort. The agency looks for ways to break TOR’s encryption by finding undiscovered vulnerabilities in the system, but they have only been able to discover the identities of individuals, as mass surveillance is not possible on the Deep Web. The Director of National Intelligence has stated that “the Intelligence Community’s interest in online anonymity services and other communication and networking tools is based on the undeniable fact that these are the tools our adversaries use to communicate and coordinate attacks against the United States and our allies.” The idea that terrorists can and do use the Deep Web to garner support and plan attacks is terrifying.

Michelle Obama recently told a crowd of Chinese students that Internet access should be a “universal right.” It’s great that the Deep Web allows people to protect their privacy and combat censorship. Although it can be a platform for awful crime, criminals will find a way to commit crime no matter what. Either way, the Deep Web is there. Its usage will probably only continue to spread, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. Its existence has created an interesting dichotomy between citizens protecting themselves from the government by using the Deep Web, and the government attempting to protect citizens from the Deep Web. This struggle embodies the constant trade-off between liberty and security.

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