Drugs, guns, and counterfeit cash are all for sale in the so-called Dark Web, a secret and sinister part of the internet that’s flourishing despite a massive crackdown. The Dark Web is the subject of an historic trial that begins in November in New York City.
First some semantics. The Dark Web: what is it? It’s a part of the Internet that cannot be accessed by search engines like Google. It’s hidden on purpose. You need a special web browser to access it, and it’s designed to be used anonymously — no tracing. But this year, the light has shined very harshly on the Dark Web. A high-profile criminal case goes to trial next month. At the center of that case is a Dark Web site called Silk Road.
The U.S. government says Ross Ulbricht is behind one of the largest drug and crime rings in history. The man seen in a video on the “Free Ross” website certainly does not look like a worldwide menace, an Internet mobster.
In a video on the site, his mother, Lyn Ulbricht, said Ross “Is the most peaceful, non-violent, positive compassionate person I’ve ever met.”
Ulbricht was arrested last fall on charges of running Silk Road, a Dark Web site akin to Amazon or eBay with buyers, sellers, user and product reviews, except the product in Silk Road’s case is usually drugs.
Ulbricht’s family began a legal defense fund at the freeross.org.
After Ulbricht’s arrest, Silk Road was shut down. But now somebody has launched a new version.
“People did studies on Silk Road and found that the customer satisfaction level was remarkably high,” said Greg Virgin, whose day job is running RedJack, a company that keeps businesses and government agencies safe from hackers.
We asked him to use his knowledge to take us inside the Dark Web. To access it, we used the free TOR browser. Virgin said “TOR” stands for “the onion router.”
“So, it’s a network of servers that relay your traffic across one another so nobody can figure out who you are, where you are,” he said.
Our first stop, Virgin took us to a site that is essentially a Dark Web directory. Without listings like these, the sites would be impossible to access unless we knew the exact addresses.
“People have estimated that more than 70 percent of the activity on the Dark Net is illegal,” Virgin said.
A lot of that illegal activity revolves around money; fake money, in some cases. We saw listings for euros, PayPal accounts, cloned credit cards with PINs, and more.
One ad offered corporate account numbers for sale. Another showed off stacks of counterfeit $20 bills; 10 bills cost $80. And users offered advice on how to spend it: “I’ve finally ordered 10 bills and found a way of spending them at nightclubs. I just ask random drunks for change. 100% success rate.”
On almost every site, it was easy to find ads for electronics, such as new, unlocked iPhone 6 smartphones for sale. Plenty offered fake passports and IDs.
One site seeks donations to recruit jihadists in the United States “to establish a new Islamic front both in the United States and around the world.”
Murder does seem to be big business on the Dark Web. One site seeks to crowd fund assassinations. Another website says it’s easy to obtain high-powered firearms. Of course, no questions are asked. No pesky background checks are undergone.
The currency — as with most things on the Dark Web — is bitcoin.
“Bitcoin is a virtual currency that obscures the people doing the transaction, so the buyer and the seller,” said Bruce Upbin, a managing editor for Forbes. “It’s a piece of code that’s shared between two parties to replace currency.”
Anyone can buy bitcoin, but it’s not cheap. One bitcoin is about $300, although it’s been as high as $1,000.
And then, there is what Greg Virgin said is most disturbing about the Dark Web.
“There are a number of atrocious child exploitation sites,” he said.
In his spare time, Virgin works with the International Justice Mission to find and rescue children being sold on the Dark Web as sexual slaves. He said because of his work, he believes arrests are coming in the near future.
“We believe we’ve found dozens of victims, that there’s a strong possibility for rescue,” he said.
Shawn Henry spent 15 years leading cyber investigations around the world for the FBI before retiring as an executive assistant director.
“Imagine from a law enforcement perspective the challenge in identifying people who have never gotten together physically, who live in five separate countries,” Henry said, adding that the Dark Web is a nightmare for law enforcement.
It is also the source of all the high-profile hacks we’ve seen this past year. Target, Home Depot, Chase, Neiman Marcus have all been broken into. Even the U.S. government database holding personal information for employees with sensitive security clearance was breached.
“Can you protect the network from being breached? That’s out the window now,” Henry said. “We need to change the paradigm here and it needs to be: how soon after an adversary makes access do we detect them.”
His biggest fear is hackers, working through the Dark Web’s anonymity, going after power plants and financial systems; cyber terrorism.
“There are actually terrorist groups that are calling for electronic jihad,” Henry said. “What if the lights go out for a week, two weeks, a month? How do we handle that as a nation?” He said he believed it “absolutely” possible.
So, where did this come from? It may be hard to believe but TOR, the software that makes this anonymous and so hard to track and makes much of what you’ve just seen possible, was created by the United States Navy. Part of the goal was help people in oppressed nations have Internet freedom. So the Dark Web is not all bad.
“For us in America we live in a free society, for the most part, but there’s plenty of people in the world who don’t, who live in oppressive regimes, where they control the Internet,” Upbin of Forbes said.
Whether it’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong or the Arab Spring, the Dark Web’s anonymity helps makes it possible by letting organizers spread the word.
That brings us back to Silk Road and the criminal case pending against Ross Ulbricht.
Julia Tourianski, a blogger from Toronto, said she believes internet freedom in the U.S. rests on the outcome of the Silk Road case.
“This is about the future of our Internet freedom,” she said. “If Ross Ulbricht loses then I think what will happen is anybody who uses TOR networks or anonymous systems will be considered a criminal by default.”
Tourianski is a supporter of Ulbricht’s mother, who said the U.S. government is trying to rewrite law.
Lyn Ulbricht has traveled the country to raise awareness about the Silk Road case and has become something of an Internet star. She would not agree to an interview with us, but we caught her speech at Liberty Fest in Brooklyn. She believes the outcome of the case could lead to a world where everyone’s activities on the web are monitored.
Of course, Edward Snowden showed us last year the NSA is already collecting information about phone calls and emails.
“It’s something far more dangerous than any website could be and that is what our government has become and how they operate,” Lyn Ulbricht said at Liberty Fest.
Tourianski said the Dark Web’s dark side is worth living with.
“Most people are inherently good, and just because a small percentage of people may or may not commit a crime, we shouldn’t police everybody,” Tourianski said. “And if we do, that’s not a world anybody wants to live in.”
Ross Ulbricht has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His trial is set to begin November 10. No matter the outcome for him, the Dark Web seems to continue defying law enforcement despite their pledge to crack down.
Ulbricht’s lawyer and the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case declined to comment for our story.
If Ulbricht is convicted of the most serious charges he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.