When most of us think of the Internet, we're thinking of the sites and services we use on a daily basis, which are accessible by regular browsers and searchable with Google. But beneath this everyday web lies a whole other Internet where sites are hidden unless you know how to use them and what to look for.
The Deep Web may have shadowy associations to black market activity, but technically it includes all Internet pages that aren't accessible by regular search engines, including archived sites and unlinked content. Then there's the stuff that resides on a subset of sites that that aren't accessible from a regular browser at all. These darknets have URLs that don't end in the traditional host suffixes (like .com, .fr, .eu, and so on) and require special browsers to open.
The Tor network is one of the most well-known darknets, thanks to sites such as the notorious Silk Road black market, which was busted by the FBI with its founder’s bitcoin fortune seized. Addresses on the Tor network follow the form of a random string of letters followed by the .onion suffix, like this link to a Deep Web directory: allyour4nert7pkh.onion. These links are only accessible using the Tor browser, downloadable from Tor. To visit a link, you either need to know the full address, get it from a Deep Web directory (such as Hidden Wiki, Pastebin or All You're Wiki) or find it via suggestions on Reddit, where many threads are devoted to discussions about Deep Web business.
Google “Hidden Wiki” with the Tor browser to hit its surface web address. From there, you can click a link to its Deep Web (.onion) version, which contains dozens of links beneath such familiar categories as commercial services, marketplaces, financial services and that Internet stalwart, the genteelly named erotica.
Also at the surface web address, you’ll find links to news and history of the Deep Web, a good read for newcomers to the whole thing.
It's true that scams abound. Offers on anything from discount iPhones to a brand new Dutch passport usually are as fishy as they sound. Directories like Hidden Wiki or the All You're Wiki directory often note beside particular links if they have turned out to be scams, while the subreddit thread r/DarkNetMarkets keeps an updated warning list of markets and services that may be scams or busts.
But there is also a vast array of Deep Web sites that bizarrely parallel what floats on the surface: eBay-esque marketplaces where vendors sell illicit products, from drugs to cracked software; sites for purchasing batches of stolen credit card accounts; hacker forums; search engines that trawl darknet markets; and a plethora of forums hosting discussions of anarchy, science, future technology and seemingly every aspect of an outside-the-mainstream existence.
Black market buying
Despite high-profile busts of the Silk Road marketplaces and similar takedowns of the Cloud 9, Hydra and Pandora markets, many other sites have sprung up in their place. These online black markets for everything from currency to drugs take bitcoin only, so interested buyers first need to head to a bitcoin exchange to turn their fiat money into virtual cash.
Evolution is one marketplace that mirrors the eBay model. There's an escrow service to hold funds until buyers receive goods, and vendors get star ratings and feedback based on the quality of their product and stealthiness of their packaging (how well it disguises the contents). The marketplace bans child pornography and hit man services, but weapons, stolen accounts, cracked software, drugs and regular porn are all kosher.
Individual vendors maintain their own sites, too. Black&Yellow is a purveyor of cloned, stolen credit cards with limits ranging from $2,500 to $5,500 for a purchase price of $80 to $150 a pop, paid in bitcoin. Over at Executive Outcomes, browsers can pick up a gun for $878 plus extra for accessories, with free shipping thrown in. You pay 40% up front, then the rest when you get you get your Glock. In the case of an unsatisfactory product, there's a money-back guarantee, though it's questionable how enforceable that is.
Most of the products on these marketplaces are illegal, so how likely are buyers to get arrested? Not very, according to Dark Web experts. “Government actions [tracking Tor activity] seem to be focused on people coordinating and leading criminal activity, not people who are only using Tor for whatever purpose, even illegal purchases,” says Chester Wisniewski, senior security advisor at Sophos.
On the Dark Web, users can find counterfeit cash in Euros, dollars and pounds sterling on offer. You can also find hacked accounts and dozens of bitcoin tumblers that launder bitcoin used for illicit transactions by scrambling its path from buyer to seller.
USJUD sells $20 and 20-eurobills that are apparently made in Asia and shipped from France. The site claims that the bills pass the pen detector test but “usually” not the infrared detector. Serial numbers are also repeated within each order, and buyers are advised to spend the bills at small casinos, gambling machines and other smaller, independent venues that presumably have fewer facilities for verifying the authenticity of their customers' cash.
If counterfeit cash and the associated in-person trading it entails seems too risky, CCPal offers batches of 100 eBay, PayPal or credit card accounts, with an 80% guarantee and full order replacement if more than 20% aren't active. And Hackintosh Apple store claims to sell real Apple products at discounted prices. Like many stores, it sounds too good to be true – and very nearly legit.
So how do you find out what's a scam and what it isn't? As user Coeysus says on a Reddit thread asking that same question, “No escrow means no [it's not legit].”
A new identity
Instead of eliminating your problems, say you just want to run away from them. To see what was available in that department, I headed to the TorFind Deep Web search engine and typed in ”new identity.” The top result was Onion Identity services, which offers users the chance to buy a new passport and start a new life. (In contrast, the same search on Google turned up pages from HowStuffWorks and WikiHow.)
Onion Identity allowed me a choice of Canadian, Lithuanian, Danish, Dutch or British passports at prices ranging from 2,500 euros for a Canadian document to 4,000 euros for British papers, to be paid in bitcoin. I could also have bought drivers' licenses and national ID cards from European countries for around 1,000 euros each.
Some of these websites look more the part than others. SOL's Official Citizenship site is nothing more than a text page claiming 100% real citizenships for sale, replete with misspelled words, random capitalizations and the claim that a “big politcal [sic] advisor dude” is buying up the citizenships and selling them because America is about to collapse.
As for assassins ...
The founder of Silk Road was snared by the FBI when he hired an undercover federal agent for a contract kill – allegedly the second he had placed the order. Many of the hired killer services on All You're Wiki have already been labeled scams to score bitcoins, and their pages have been taken down.
A few cursory attempts on my part to find something similar turned up a couple of text-based, single-page sites that promised to “neutralize” my problems for $5,000 to $7,000 ($10,000, if I wanted to throw in “extended suffering”), as well as a bizarro TaskRabbit-style service – the only-in-the-Deep-Web MaskRabbit, which allows you to hire goons, saboteurs, hackers or spies from a drop-down menu.
Politics and beyond
Does the Deep Web offer more than a shadowy recess for anonymous black market transactions? Its anonymous nature means it can offer useful resources for people in repressive countries where websites are censored and web connections are monitored.
The New Yorker’s Strongbox allows whistleblowers to securely and anonymously share files and messages with the magazine’s writers and editors. Against Servants purports to deliver information about the habits and extravagant behaviors of political servants around the world. KavKaz Centre is a Deep Web mirror of the kavkaznews.com site that covers news from Russian and Chechnya, including articles about Putin that would probably not be acceptable in the motherland.
The Deep Web also hosts many sites that could easily be hosted on the surface web, such as single-page sites that are social or political manifestos, or forums for geeky or esoteric but totally licit topics. For example, IntelExchange is a forum where topics range from engineering to quantum soul theory.
For those intent on anonymity, almost any communication service on the regular web has its secure, encrypted Deep Web counterpart: email services, social networks, personal messaging and site hosting services for your own Deep Web domain, with links at All You're Wiki.
Safety measures for browsing the Deep Web
The Reddit threads r/Onions, r/Tor, r/DeepWeb and r/DarkNetMarkets often contain links to sites deemed worthy and, conversely, sites that are scams. Deep Web directories Hidden Wiki and All You're Wiki are good starting points for browsing categories to stumble through interests, while Deep Web search engines TORCH and TorFind can occasionally turn up something you're specifically looking for.
Browsing on the Deep Web isn't like browsing on the surface. For one thing, websites are basic affairs reminiscent of 1990s Internet sites, and many of them hark back to that era. Because the rerouting of traffic means pages load slowly, these sites need to remain simple to avoid even longer load times. They're also down far more often than surface websites supported by ads and run on professional servers; a site that won’t load one day may work just fine the next.
Many pages don't link to others, and it can be difficult to revisit pages if you can't remember the long strings of random text that make up the address. Bookmarking favorites could be a good idea, unless you're worried that your computer could be spied on or stolen.
Obviously, when you’re registering to use marketplaces or other services, don't use anything from your real life as your handle – “not your dog's name, not your birth year,” Wisniewski says. “The safest thing [from an anonymity point of view] is to boot the Tor browser from a read-only medium like a DVD or USB drive to access the Deep Web network.” This prevents sites from leaving cookies or other trackers – not great if you next surf to a site where you normally use your identity, such as logging into an account.
Though what's been reported about the Deep Web often focuses on its darker or harmful content, the darknet holds potential as a place to securely communicate. Facebook's recent launch of its own .onion address reflects the number of users on Tor browsers who use it as a private way to browse the Internet (including such non-nefarious activity as Facebook), and many sites with addresses on the Deep Web are not purveyors of illicit products but simply offer content they want to be universally available across the Internet regardless of its users’ location.
[laptop in dark room via Shutterstock]