The known Internet is a playground for anyone who’s into breaking news, kitten videos and Amazon products. But few realize that there is a second Internet — a mysterious, dangerous and isolated Web that operates outside the public’s awareness.
It stands to reason that anything mainstream also has a fringe. And so it is with our established cyberspace. While our Internet is a screaming free-for-all that arrogantly plays with our privacy, this Deep Web or Undernet is a clandestine space that relies on anonymity for its very existence, as well as the survival of its rogue netizens of drug dealers, contract killers and the clients who seek them out.
Thanks to Business Insider, we have a glimpse of how this Deep Web works.
The Tor network comprises a secret set of websites hidden from the likes of Google, Facebook and standard web browsers. Visitors can only access them with a special Tor browser, which uses encryption, evasive routing and other controls to scramble or obfuscate the user’s location and identity. Indeed, requests bounce all over the world, from one volunteer server to another, before finally bringing forth the content.
Originally developed for the Navy, Tor has become an instrument of crime. Little wonder how that evolved: The network guarantees anonymity for its users, even during e-commerce transactions. The preferred method of payment, Bitcoins, is an untraceable digital currency that holds real cash value. And visitors don’t stumble upon Tor sites by accident. With all this emphasis on confidentiality, typical search discovery is impossible here. But there is a Hidden Wiki that compiles several of its websites, which reveals a laundry list of illicit resources.
• Silk Road: Like any e-commerce site, this one offers perusable thumbnail grids, a shopping cart and online payments. The distinctions here are that the products are illegal drugs and paraphernalia. And just like on Amazon, shoppers purchase on the site and wait for mail carriers to deliver the goods. (Click here for a full rundown of how the site works.)
• Buttery Bootlegging: This freelance shoplifter works for hire.
• EuroArms: The premiere destination for arms dealers and buyers. (Ammunition sold separately.)
• White Wolves: Might as well be called “Assassins ‘R Us.” People seeking to hire contract killers have been known to frequent this site.
• The Human Experiment: If this one’s for real, then the sick and twisted have a new place to congregate. It allegedly offers details on medical experiments conducted on people against their will.
It’s mind-boggling, what Tor users may have available. If these sites are genuine, then it’s clear this underground network is rich with beneath-the-table resources, including fake IDs, fixed sporting events, counterfeit money, child pornography, and stolen credit cards, passports and social security numbers. And that’s just scratching the surface.
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The knee-jerk reaction might be to shut down Tor, but illegal activity isn’t the only reason people come to this network. Anyone who needs a high-level of security can fire up the browser to protect messages, conduct online research (particularly on gray topics), or access important info from, say, behind a country’s firewall. There are also sites on this network developed by people with no depraved intentions at all — like the artists and musicians at LA-based Young & Sick and the developers for military intelligence applications. And it’s worth noting that WikiLeaks used Tor to give anonymous users a way to upload their documents without divulging their identities.
Like any place with no overarching oversight, where human will is free to run rampant, there are light corners and dark corners of our online universe too. No doubt, the revelation will make some users cling to their mainstream Internet, like moths to a flame. Unfortunately, privacy issues can burn them in this space. With each revelation — which seem to come every week, if not every day — the public grows more concerned about its online security.
Will average users someday flock to the path set by criminals, activists and intelligence communities? No, we don’t see Tor becoming mainstream, at least not any time soon. Most people haven’t heard of it, and even if they knew, a major privacy controversy of epic proportions would have to come along first before anyone could even consider changing the way they consume the Web. However, privacy issues aren’t dying out; they’re ramping up. And it’s not hard to imagine a renowned company, responsible for millions of trusting users, committing a genuinely shocking violation that would drop the jaw of even the most blasé tech user. It would be naive to think this won’t happen at some point.
What happens after that is anyone’s guess. In the mean time, for now it seems the Deep Web will continue on just as it has been, conducting its covert affairs in the virtual shadows.