Take a Walk on The Wild Side
The Social Dynamics of Online Anonymity
Most of us find the size of the Internet and the Web’s rate of expansion more than a little overwhelming, so we rarely have an opportunity to think about ‘what else might be out there’.
Most people are also vaguely aware that there is in fact, a rich universe of worlds layered across the vastness of the Internet. These make it possible for millions of people to spend a significant portion of their time interacting in virtual universes or collaborating across obscure academic, military or commercial networks. To those people, the rest of us exist on the surface. The clearnet or surface Web is more than a nickname. It’s a hint as to how this abstract universe is stacked, digitally overlaid atop the ecosystems of the Deep Web whose secretive existence is made that much more intriguing by its diversity of names. Indeed much of what exists below the Web we know goes by nicknames such as Darknet, Undernet, hidden Web or Invisible Web.
With all the talk about Internet surveillance, state-sponsored attacks and censorship overshadowing the usual drone of the now mundane malware and cyberfraud being perpetrated online, perhaps this is a good time to check out some alternatives. I thought it appropriate to take a quick look below the visible Web to see if things are better on the other side. With the noblest of intentions I made my way through circuitous routes, each more encrypted than the one before it, down into the deep recesses of the Internet, though not so deep that I’d have to resort to remembering 1980s DATAPAC or pre-Gopher commands. Does that make me sound old or nerdy? Either way, so be it.
Where was I? Ah yes. It doesn’t take long before you have the feeling that you’re descending into a dark cave and the light from the surface is less visible with every passing moment. Strange. The palpable obscurity and the illusion of seclusion are almost overwhelmingly claustrophobic. Upon leaving the familiar and brightly lit world of the traditional Internet, with its Googles and Amazons and Facebooks, you reach an entirely unfamiliar domain. But maybe that’s not quite fair, because this deep below the surface is an ocean teeming with a surprising amount of activity.
Even months after having last visited it, this place still feels dark and moist. In addition to a solid helping of curiosity, it requires special software to access, obscure addresses to navigate and a whole new lexicon to understand. Terms like “bitcoin mixer”, “onion bootstrapping” and “DRM removal services” hint at some commercial activity, albeit probably not the legitimate kind.
But that’s okay, because it’s all very interesting and most of it not new to me. Still, I can’t help thinking that to the uninitiated, this must feel a bit like the fictional ruins beneath San Angeles or the very real drain tunnels beneath modern day Las Vegas. So without even intending to do so, I got sidetracked by the myriad distractions present in this bizarro world. Browsing the hidden services I’m about to describe, I have the eerie feeling of being in an illicit marketplace.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Pretty much anything, actually. This is so far off the beaten path that not quite unlike modern day mole people, phishers, fraudsters and petty criminals all symbiotically inhabit this place along with organized criminals and probably much, much worse. Among them, anarchists, researchers and curious visitors make their presence known with random contributions of opinionated posts and detailed manifestos. If anything happens to you here, you get the feeling that no one will hear you scream.
I’m sure that Hollywood has a lot to do with it, but it’s interesting to reflect on how a few windows on a computer screen can be immersive enough to give a general sense of unease. It would be a little more comforting if only we could consistently remember that by simply closing those windows one can be whisked back to the familiar world of the clearnet, with its traditional scams and phishing attempts.
If there’s any law enforcement presence here, it isn’t making its presence felt. But being invisible here isn’t difficult. Just like everyone else, I am using a complex chain of encrypted layers and secret tunnels designed to make me anonymous. Police presence or not, I still find it implausible that this virtual medium would have escaped the scrutiny of government surveillance. Why? Because this is Tor (The Onion Router), a world created by and largely maintained with funding from the US government. And not in a small way either. Out of the $2m operating budget, some 80% is courtesy of the United States while almost 20% is contributed by the Swedish government. But never mind that. This vast digital domain is made up of thousands of worldwide nodes that route encrypted traffic to and fro in quasi-anonymity and complete obscurity. The Tor browser I’m using and its underlying mechanisms are shaping and steering my traffic through the most circuitous path imaginable to elude any would-be followers. The network is also endorsed by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) whose persistent activism has earned it a lot of public trust and good will among netizens.
A staple of this underground world is the Silk Web, a notorious marketplace where anonymous sellers peddle their exotic wares from the farthest recoins of the globe. These are not just regular trinkets. They include illegal drugs, stolen identities and ‘replica’ money, all delivered to an address of your choosing in discreet (and discrete) packaging. Until recently the Silk Web had a sister site where *any* weapons could be bought and sold, but the Armory has recently disappeared for reasons unknown so it’s mostly focused on an elaborate listing of nebulous narcotics. I was briefly intrigued by the pictures and descriptions of the drugs on offer, but since I can’t tell the difference between Ibuprofen and Immodium I decided to pass on all the
opioids, psychedelics, stimulants, precursors and um.. dissociatives. Having never smoked a cigarette, the terminology is entirely foreign to me, but some of the detailed molecular descriptions of the chemicals are mildly interesting. On an amusing note, someone is selling Cannabis flavoured condoms.
Anyway, I’m here to explore this dark world and I’m intentionally giving myself only about an hour to do it, otherwise I can easily see this getting out of control. So without further analysis, I present an arbitrary list of the 10 most outrageous things I came across on this quick walk on the wild side:
1. Fake ID cards for pretty much any jurisdiction, printed on authentic banknote material, complete with holograms, blacklight ghost pictures, barcodes and magstrips. Soon after you provide your mugshot, the ID card, driver’s license, insurance card, student ID or fake passport promises to be on its way to you. At the equivalent of $5000 in BitCoin for a (working!) passport, you’ve got to really be running away from something, although one could envision the occasional desperate fugitive taking a huge gamble here and ignoring the likelihood that many of these are fake sites run by Interpol to catch the lowest common denominator.
2. Need some Canadian ID? How about an Ontario Driver’s License & Health Card Combo ($400)? Canada Revenue Agency T4 Income Tax Slips ($30), Canadian paycheque stubs ($19) and Custom Canadian bank statements ($50) are all available. Emphasis on “custom”. And look over here: we have one vendor advertising guaranteed-to-work packages of 100 credit cards, Paypal and eBay accounts for $100 a pop.
3. Need cash? How about some prepaid cards ready to be transferred to your PayPal account? British Pounds or Genuine US cash (Federal Reserve Notes) are available for more than their face value. Heck, if you’re really looking to launder some money, you may choose to diversify into stamps, of which there are many types.
4. Need even more anonymity? Order a customized USB stick with gigs of storage that includes a highly secure operating system that will simply bypass the one already on your system. And get this: a special casing makes it easy to break with your hand in case you need to dispose of it in a hurry. Are you starting to get the picture?
5. Anarchist bulletin boards hold a vast amount of information and advice for the curious and uninitiated. For instance, one forum is called: “What to do in case law enforcement is at your door” and one of the instructional documents under the “General Advice” subheading is descriptively titled: “Dealing with the pigs”. Another offers step-by-step tips on what to do “when the chips are down”. Apparently down here, ignorance is not an excuse.
6. Hungry for more information? Anarchists and even terrorists might find something for their non-discerning palates on sites called LiberaTor and the Tor Library with ebooks and pdfs on everything from building bombs to cooking up some gunpowder. Building home-made guns, converting submachine guns, and a bunch of counterintelligence and counterguerrilla operation manuals. There’s even a bunch of Canadian tomes with names like “Mountain operations”, “Never Say Die” survival manual, and “Training for war”. Canadians, it seems, are really into this stuff.
7. Hitman for hire. Apparently all he needs is a 2-month headstart and a deposit of about $10k. He uses typical language like “To eliminate an ordinary person: $40k”. Everyone else – like paparazzi, government officials and business associates are upwards of $100k. Spouses? price varies depending on social status. Criminal or lower rank politician? $100k. Sounds fair. Another listing casually describes rent-a-hacker services as hacking, espionage and “ruining people”. They mention having USA citizenship and access to a group of 3 contract killers in the US/Canada/EU. Meh… it’s all too rich for me, although in all fairness the entrepreneurial trio is offering a 1% commission from every referral. Just send them your username… Moving on.
8. Think this bizarro world is all about debauchery and scams? It certainly seems like it, but it wouldn’t be complete without its own versions of familiar hangouts such as Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter. Well look no farther than the Hidden Wiki, Torbook and TorStatusNet. They’re here and they’re complementing the scores of anonymous forums and instant messaging chat rooms. All they need is you.
9. Still want guns? EuroGuns has them, apparently. Everything from James Bond’s Walther PPK to um.. Ashton Kutcher’s Magnum Desert Eagle. At over $2000 a pop, you’ll have to really have a thing for looking like Agent Smith to risk your freedom on this piece. If it’s explosives you’re after, apparently a particularly curious US federal judge had some luck finding them when the Armory was still up, but it’s still an entertaining account. If you crave more, Gizmodo has a slightly-dated-but-interesting review.
10. Everything else. I don’t know if it’s possible to shake the weird feeling of exploring these dark alleys in Onionland. The handy Onionland Museum chronicles some of the major developments in its short history, from 2005 when it only had 100 ‘nodes’, to 2013 when new freedom forums, anonymous digital currency wallets and identity forums are commonplace. One notable development however is the 2012 crackdown on pedophile rings running on this network, itself preceded by a 2011 change amusingly described as “November-December 2011: a rather nice amount of new non-child porn imageboards are created”. Rather nice indeed.
Although at an estimated $22 million in annual volume, the Silk Road remains the 900lb gorilla of this jungle, one could spend days just browsing the incredible array of hidden services on offer. Even ignoring the pervasive drug peddlers and ‘red light district’, this place plays host to odd sites that range from currency counterfeiters to freedom fighters looking for work. At all times, the Matrix is relentless in its attempts to hustle you into the next dark alley and you soon wonder whether being anonymous is all it’s cracked up to be. If my brief visit has intrigued you enough to give it a shot, I won’t stop you. Simply download the Tor browser and fire it up, then point it to a link directory and see what kind of trouble you can get yourself into.
Well my hour’s up! It’s time to get back to the surface for some fresh air. I am almost looking forward to the triviality of traditional email-borne threats and the familiarity of privacy attacks to be found up there. Almost.