Pop quiz: If you wanted to buy firearms, illegal drugs or your neighbor’s social security number, where would you go? Well, you could go down to the seamy side of town and brave the people who sell the kind of things you’re looking for. Or you could ask your cousin to have his buddy Jimmy get you in with the right (wrong) kind of people. But your easiest option of all would have to be based on the same principles that have driven in-store purchases down and caused e-commerce to spike in the last 15 years. You could just buy them all on a tucked-away corner of the internet, the much talked-about but little-understood “dark web”.
The concept of the dark web has reached urban legend status, in no small part thanks to TV shows like CSI and House of Cards. You have heard of it and are kind of curious if there is any truth to the rumors (“Did you hear that Velma’s son Mikey was caught selling illegal exotic wildlife on the dark web? Now he is in jail for 25 years!”). You have an inkling that it’s not the most up and up place to be but you aren’t sure what the heck it’s all about and, man, are you curious. We’ll help contain your curiosity and dispel some myths, but before we delve into what exactly takes place on the dark web we need to make some important caveats and clarifications.
A – We do not condone any sort of illegal or immoral activities that take place on the dark web. This article simply stands to educate, inform and potentially deter (mainly because it will slow your internet connection down unnecessarily, and um, what do you really need down there anyway?). Please, please don’t go buying or selling semi-automatics and say we told you to do it.
B – When discussing the dark web, there seems to be a misconception that the terms “dark web” and “deep web” are interchangeable – but they aren’t, so let’s set the records straight – The deep web is the part of the web that’s not searchable by means of regular search engines, such as Google and Bing. This can include anything from password-protected sites, corporate databases, pages behind paywalls, staging sites, archives, to academic research repositories and more. Pretty tame as far as web-related stuff goes.
How Deep Is The Deep Web Anyway?
Oh, and the deep web is huge. Absolutely humongous, in fact. Just how big? Well, the clear web (the internet that regular ‘ol people use all the time) hosts over a billion websites. The deep web is estimated to be 400-500 times larger than that.
So What Is The Dark Web?
The dark web is a part of the deep web, just a small little corner, actually. Guestimates put it at playing host to just 7000- 30,000 sites. We say “guestimate” because the nature of the sites running on the dark web is that they set up shop and shut down at the drop of a hat, or at the first sign of a fed so the total number is in a constant state of flux. This is the mysterious, fabled area of the web, kind of like an online Area 51. You have heard of it, you’re dying to know if the hype is true but you don’t really want to venture there by yourself to find out.
Now that we are all on the same page here, let’s get into the real meat and potatoes (or kale and potatoes for the vegans among us) and answer a bunch of pressing questions – What really takes place down there on the dark web? Is everybody there part of a roaming band of murderers, thieves and drug-crazed freaks? Can I get a new iPhone 7 dirt cheap there? Will I find my name, DOB and social security for sale?
Ready For A “Deep Dive” Into The Dark Web To Find Out?
The dark web, so called because it employs encryption to conceal the locations of everything stored on it, is made up of websites that are not indexed by regular search engines, just like the rest of the deep web. Unlike the majority of the deep web sites that can be accessed with a regular browser with a little leg work though, dark web sites can only be accessed using a TOR (The Onion Router, so-called because it encrypts information in nestled layers, kind of like the layers of an onion. Yup, now you know) browser. So in order to access anything on the dark web, you would need to download the TOR browser bundle. Once it’s all up and running, TOR pings your IP address out in a random fashion to any of the 5000 (give or take a few thousand) volunteers, thus disguising your identity. Now you’re ready to access sites that can’t be accessed by the regular ‘ol netizens and when you do, no one will be able to pin down your IP.
All this anonymity is why the dark web has become synonymous with computer-based crime. And while it’s a pretty accurate association, the truth is that a penchant for crime isn’t the only reason people choose to access the dark web. People choose to host websites on the dark web for all sorts of anonymity-related reasons. The dark web plays host to networks for journalists looking to stay untraceable in unstable regions of the world, privacy advocates who simply don’t trust the use of the clear web, whistleblowers (think Edward Snowden) and political dissidents who use it to express themselves without compromising their safety.
But before you run to download TOR and hop on over to the dark side so you can hobnob with journalists and free thinkers, know that the crime element we so often associate with the dark web really does exist. And yeah, it’s pretty creepy. There are forums that specialize in human trafficking, drug selling, hitmen for hire and all sorts of pornography. Then there are endless counterfeit goods for sale on pop-up underground marketplaces like the now-defunct Silk Road, the illegal drug and other stuff marketplace that was shut down by the FBI in 2013. Often times, these marketplaces run under the premise of “sticking it to the man” with their leaders acting as poster children for individuality and libertarian views. But dude, crime is crime all the same.
Cybercrime-as-a-service marketplaces abound on the dark web. For just a few bitcoins, (the lifeblood of the dark web, because any other form of currency can be traced) it’s more than possible to gather the crypters, bots and ready-to-go browser exploits needed to hack just about anyone, anywhere. Your typical ransomware kit (fully functional!) will run on average about 2.5 BTC per month. Your prepackaged, signed, sealed and delivered exploit kit, with which you can launch high-level attacks with virtually no knowledge of how the heck it’s working, will cost you about $500. How charming!
Also present are forums and marketplaces (often the same as the above ones) selling social security numbers, credit card numbers, health care data and banking credentials for just a few dollars a pop. Just last week, a hacker named Peace confirmed that he was selling a data dump of leaked passwords and email addresses stolen from the massive LinkedIn breach back in 2012 for all of $2200. A bargain!
And Then There Are The Feds
Undercover law enforcement agents from all over the world set up shop on the dark web with the intention of catching would-be criminals in the act, like ones who caught a 16-year-old that was caught trying to buy poison in 2015. Turned out, the seller was an FBI agent. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are at any given time, hundreds of feds posing as customers in search of counterfeit or otherwise illegal goods to trip-up criminals. There are even criminal-catching software programs in on the act, such as the pedophile-snagging CGI platform set up by a charity from the Netherlands in 2013. And don’t forget the run-of-the-mill raids of the aforementioned marketplaces that happen on a regular basis. Often on the dark web, it’s a game of cat and mouse and most people aren’t really sure who is playing on which side.
Now you understand that the dark web isn’t some huge looming underbelly just waiting to pop up and swallow the clearnet. If anything, the underbelly of the internet is the deep web, which we already know is a huge and necessary part of the internet ecosystem – and you probably use it on a daily basis, anyway. The dark web is more like that bar on the other side of town – it’s there with all its elements. You wouldn’t go there yourself but it’s not out to get you. And if you do choose to check it out, remember that things aren’t always as they seem so stick to the right side of the law, ya hear?
So when you wipe away all the hype and de-shroud all the mystery surrounding the dark web, this is all there is to it – a motley collection of a few thousand bad guys in pursuit of drugs, illicit activities and more, some good guys looking to expose injustice and fight for privacy and those who fall somewhere in between, like everybody else who came to sight-see and figure out what all the hype is really about. Are you just a tad disappointed that it’s not something a bit juicier, and doesn’t even qualify for second-tier tabloid headline status? Well, at least you know how to answer your friends when they ask “Hey, have you heard of this dark web thing?”
This article was written by Batya Steinherz, head cyber security writer at Reason Software, makers of Reason Core Security anti-malware. RCS is security software that detects, removes and blocks malware and adware that your anti-virus will miss. With the highest detection rates in the industry and real time analytics, RCS is a must-have in your digital security tool kit.