If our popular culture is to be believed, most people assume there’s a place online where the worst of the headlines you read about drugs, money laundering, murder for hire, and vast child pornography rings are born. It’s called many things, though “Dark Web” is the most dramatic.
Although it’s true that this Dark Web exists, it’s much larger and more diverse than merely these illegal activities. What’s more, the same technology that makes it possible for such marketplaces to operate in secret is also protecting political dissidents overseas and hiding everyday Internet traffic from surveillance. It may be that this digital back alley is the path toward a more secure Internet.
The World of Webs
Most people take the Internet at face value, but what most of us interact with is really just a slice of the information available called the Surface Web. To get to the Dark Web we have to go deeper, away from the world of standard Web addresses and onto the anonymity network called Tor. When you click on a link in Google, you’re connected with the target information fairly directly. Someone accessing the same site while connected through Tor would have their request bounced randomly through volunteer computers called nodes before exiting Tor and arriving at the site, making their online movements much harder to track.
Tor can be used to access sites on the Surface Web, but servers can also be assigned special addresses that can only be reached within the Tor network. These are called hidden services, and when we’re talking about the Dark Web, we’re mostly talking about these sites. Of course, there are other services to hide online activity and even host hidden websites, but Tor is perhaps the most well known and well established.
Surprisingly, the onion routing protocol that powers Tor was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Tor is now a volunteer-run nonprofit operation, but it makes no secret of its roots. A page on Tor’s history reads: “[Onion routing] was originally developed with the U.S. Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications. Today, it is used every day for a wide variety of purposes by normal people, the military, journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and many others.”
Among those “others” are some of the Internet’s ne’er-do-wells. Some malware authors, for example, have used Tor to hide communication with their creations. The anonymization of the Tor network is also attractive for people carrying out illicit online activities, such as selling and purchasing illegal merchandise. When you read about illegal websites selling drugs, weapons, and child pornography, it’s a safe bet that those websites are hosted within Tor.
The Bad Dark Web
“A few years ago, if you tried to browse the Internet through Tor, it would be a very slow and very painful experience,” says Kaspersky researcher Stefan Tanase (pictured). As is often the case with digital security experts, speaking with Tanase and his fellow Kaspersky associate Sergey Lozhkin required a phone call from the PC Magazine office in New York to Bucharest and Moscow. That part of the world produces huge amounts of spam, malware, and cyberattacks, but just so happens to also produce some of the best minds in digital security in almost equal proportions.
Tanase and Lozhkin have a unique perspective on the hidden ecosystem of the Dark Web. Although the Surface Web has search engines to index its contents and connections, there was no map of the Dark Web on Tor. Tanase and Lozhkin set out to create one.
“We started with a list of known hidden websites hosted within [Tor], so we’ve been crawling, accessing these websites and looking for links to other websites,” says Tanase, describing their process of mimicking Google’s approach in mapping the Surface Web. Though the number of hidden services on Tor is relatively small compared with the Internet at large (Tanase describes it as containing “thousands but not tens of thousands of websites”), the researchers say the Dark Web will remain a bit of a mystery, even after their explorations.
“There are a number of sites that go offline every day and some that are available for months or weeks,” says Lozhkin. “In the next few hours, the sites with the same content can be available on a completely different address.” The relative difficulty in simply finding hidden services, in addition to the anonymity provided by Tor, feeds the Dark Web’s aura of mystery. Not to mention the exclusivity of its illegal offerings.
But even that’s changing. These days, you can download a specially modified Web browser from Tor that requires little to no technical know-how to use. The Dark Web is nearing drag-and-drop simplicity. There’s even an officially supported Android client you can use to access Tor on the go. Using tactics similar to those of the Kaspersky researchers, search engines have begun to appear within the Dark Web over the last year or two. “They’re like Google,” says Lozhkin. “Search whatever you like. I dunno, malware, drugs, stuff like this, and get links right away.”
This is what most people imagine the Dark Web to be: an electronic black market where anything is available. And the researchers I spoke with confirm that all that—and worse—is available on websites hidden within Tor. Drugs, guns, and even rhinoceros horn are for sale on the Dark Web, but those still require the physical exchange of goods. The Dark Web is, without question, far more dangerous when it comes to easily distributing illegal digital material, such as child pornography. In 2011, the Dark Web child pornography marketplace Lolita City made headlines when activists from Anonymous knocked the site offline and released information about its patrons. At the time, it was reported that the site hosted more than 100GB of sexual images of children as young as toddlers. When Eric Eoin Marques, the operator of a Tor-based webhosting service called Freedom Hosting (which hosted Lolita City and was also attacked by Anonymous), was arrested in 2013, the Irish newspaper The Independent wrote that Marques’ customers used the service to share “graphic images [depicting] the rape and torture of prepubescent children.”
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