Seeing as you’ve found your way onto this page and you are a 21st century human, we’ll assume you’ve heard of the World Wide Web. However, have you heard about the darker side of the web, lurking in the murky depths below the visible surface of the internet?
On 22 July 2016, Ali David Sonboly killed 10 people and injured 35 others at a busy shopping district in Munich. His method of procuring the gun has lead to officials focussing more and more attention towards the ‘Dark Web’, the mysterious online phenomenon which served as a weapons marketplace for the 19 year old shooter.
The Dark Web generally refers to the shadiest corners of the online world, but the reality is often little understood. Thefullapple investigates the facts about the Dark Web: what exactly is it? What happens there? And how exactly did it let a 19 year old procure a 9mm Glock pistol with over 300 rounds of ammunition, in a country with extremely tight gun laws?
What is the Dark Web?
Essentially, the Dark Web is an area of the internet which lets secrets remain secret. If you thought Google had access to every webpage on the Internet, you thought wrong. There exist a number of websites which cannot be found by search engines or web trawling: you have to know the exact address you’re looking for in order to access a site in the dark web. Even the famous Google PageRank algorithm won’t be able to index or rank the Dark Web.
How are these sites kept secret?
Such dark webpages are hosted on servers with encrypted, or ‘hidden’, addresses, essentially meaning you can’t work out who’s behind it. You also need to use a special software to access such “dark” websites. (More on this later.)
In return, the user’s IP address trying to access the encrypted site is hidden too. This two way encryption ensures the most private of connections which is incredibly difficult to track back to any particular server or user.
What kind of stuff do you get on the Dark Web?
Due to the secretive nature of the Dark Web, it has become infamous for being the platform for drugs, child pornography and terrorism alongside many other criminal activities. Identities are hidden and so law enforcers can’t track activity in the same way as normal websites, leading to easier trading and procurement of illegal items such as the Munich shooter’s illegal pistol.
There are all sorts of unsavoury criminal dealings on there if you know where to look, ranging from straight up Marijuana to stolen credit card numbers, Netflix account details and fake college degrees. Some sites are large scale and relatively well known, such as Silk Road – where recreational drugs can be bought and sold with relative ease. Another particularly creative site offers the services of a woman who will write anything on her boobs for you. #thefullapple anybody?
The home of scandal
It’s also a great place to dump threatening information before releasing it to the more public surface web. The 10GB of stolen data from Ashley Madison in 2015, the infamous cheating agency, was initially released onto the Dark Web by hackers as a threat to the sites founders to close it down, before the information was eventually leaked to the mainstream web much to the founders’ horror.
Is it all bad?
However, and here’s what mainstream media won’t tell you, is that the fundamental idea behind the Dark Web is not so sinister. It is a means to communicate over the internet with the utmost privacy and give users and hosts the freedom to engage without the worry of being disturbed. Thus Banks, data warehouses and communications hubs have all been known to use the Dark Web for perfectly legitimate uses, with data protection as a priority and not criminal activity.
The need for privacy does not necessarily go hand in hand with illegality: on the Dark Web, you will find whistleblower sites and political activism sites from countries where people are not fortunate enough to have their freedom of speech protected by the law.
For example Edward Snowden, the famous US whistleblower, used the Dark Web to send information about surveillance programs to the Washington Post and the Guardian in June 2013.
The Deep vs Dark Web – how big is it?
Time to clear up some confusion now. Look online, and you’ll find people confusing a large number of different terms for hidden online activity – Deepnet, Darknet, Invisible Web, Hidden Web.
You’ll also find that a large number of mainstream newspapers churning out scare stories about the Dark Web consisting of 90% of the Internet, but they’re wrong. What they may actually be referring to is the Deep Web.
The terms Deep Web and Dark Web are often used interchangeably. However, they aren’t the same thing. The Deep Web is anything online that cannot be found using a search engine, whereas the Dark Web is a small subset of this, which has been intentionally hidden and cannot be accessed through a normal web browser.
The Deep Web therefore includes anything that’s private. This ranges from online databases of personal information, content management systems where webpages are edited, the intranet of all the companies in the world… lots of perfectly legitimate stuff.
Ever use online banking? The password protected bits are all on the Deep Web. And if you consider the number of different bank accounts existing online, you can begin to understand why the Deep Web is so massive. While 90% is a commonly quoted figure, it is important to note that the Deep Web is anonymous and constantly expanding, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly how large it is. Estimates often state that only 0.03% of all web content is being picked up by internet searches, and is called the Surface Web.
An important point to take home is that the Dark Web is only a small subset of the Deep Web, and it certainly does not constitute 90% of the internet.
So how does the Dark Web work in practice?
So we’ve established that the Dark Web is only a subset of the hidden web, and also that it isn’t all bad. How do you access it though? Whether it’s the fake college certificates you’re after, or perhaps the site on which a german man sells pretzels (yep, just pretzels – don’t ask why he needed end to end encryption to do this), you’ll need to use an encryption tool to get on the dark web. The most famous of these is Tor, an American volunteer project that helps those seeking anonymous online communication by hiding who you are and what you’re up to.
Tor (also known as the Onion router) works by bundling your data into one encrypted ‘packet’ on its network, then stripping this packet down to remove important information such as your IP address. The rest of the addressing information is encrypted in a ‘packet wrapper’ and thus a modified and anonymised data packet exists. This finally gets passed around many thousands of servers on the Tor network before it’s final destination to throw any snoopers off course.
If you want to create your own shop on the Dark Web, (maybe you want to sell your own pretzels rather than buying from others?), you’ll also need Tor to encrypt the page. It’s easy to download Tor from it’s website, which can be found on the surface web. (Note: thefullapple is not endorsing any kind of criminal activity on the Dark Web.) There are other encryption tools you could use such as Freenet or I2P pioneered by the notorious Silk Road Reloaded, but one thing is key: the web page and the user must both use the same encryption tool.
Bitcoin – The currency of the Dark Web
So how did the Munich shooter pay for his pistol, and how do people purchase drugs from Silk Road? The answer is of course, Bitcoin. (See our article “What is Bitcoin?”)
Already infamous for being the currency of choice from criminal activity, Bitcoin remains the most popular currency used on the Dark Web. And if you’re feeling lucky, you can even visit a site offering up Bitcoin lottery tickets.
A bitcoin lottery? Source: gamblingwithbitcoin.com
Should we be scared?
The Dark Web does undeniably provide a convenient platform for criminal activity. But this isn’t going unnoticed by law enforcers across the globe. For example, the UK government has launched a dedicated unit for cybercrime on the Dark Web, particularly surrounding child pornography and infamous crime rings.
The European Cyber Crime Centre has also launched a number of different operations and continue to do so today, a famous one being Operation Onymous in 2014, which saw police in more than a dozen European countries, as well as the US, shut down big sites such as Silk Road 2.0, Hydra and Cannabis Road websites. The Dark Web is something that authorities are aware of, and are working to regulate.
So far, you’ve been snorkelling over the beautiful coral reef of search engine protected sites and the surface web. Now you’ve swam out over the reefs edge and noticed that huge scary expanse of water below you: so deep, dark and menacing that you can’t even see just how far it goes. The Dark Web is a pretty scary place and it’s accessible to all with just a few simple steps… but the question is, do you really want to access it?