Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Silk Road Bust Raises Profile of So-Called “Dark Web”


A Large Evil Corporation

Yesterday’s bust of the man the FBI said is the operator of Silk Road, a secretive online marketplace for illegal drugs and various sketchy services, has brought some new attention on the “Dark Web.”

So what the heck is the Dark Web, a.k.a. the Deep Web, a.k.a. the Hidden Web, and to the extent that you would want to, how does one access it?

Basically it’s a network of websites that are hosted on a network reachable only by people who use Tor, which stands for The Onion Router. You can read about it here. Tor’s origins lie in a project at the U.S. Naval Academy, and the point then was research into new ways of protecting government communications from the encroachments of hackers and spies.

Here’s how I understand how it works: When using a Tor-enabled browser, the traffic between your computer and the server that hosts the website you’re visiting travels through a randomized network of nodes that comprise the Tor network. No single link in the traffic chain can be used to link back to you, making it a pretty good tool for staying anonymous (when used properly).

In time, the research project moved to the open-source community, and now software that enables use of the Tor network is freely available to anyone: Bad guys selling drugs and guns, political activists trying to obfuscate their communications from a repressive government, or police doing surveillance work.

Here’s a screen grab of the Tor network I used today, which was created using a program called Vidalia.


Today I downloaded a Tor Browser Bundle that contains both Vidalia, which sets up the network, and a tweaked version of the Firefox Web browser. You can find versions that work for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, several of which are customized for different languages, here.

After installing, I had what I was told was an anonymized connection to the Web — that is, the conventional Web. “Congratulations. Your browser is configured to use Tor,” a welcome page said. I could search Google for something to help me carry out a criminal act or post a message on some forum without having to worry about any of it ever being traced back to me.

In practice, using a browser in this manner is slower than you’re probably used to. All that extra traffic to obfuscate your actual IP address and location takes its toll on the experience. So don’t expect the same zippy Web you’d likely enjoy without all the Tor infrastructure. Otherwise, it was just like using a conventional browser.

But here’s where the Dark Web comes in. That same cloak of anonymity that works for an individual browser also works for someone who wants to host a website. There is a pseudo top-level domain known as .onion that is not part of the global domain name registry but that works with Tor-enabled browsers. There’s a Wikipedia article here that gets into more of the technical nitty gritty if you’re interested, but the main thing to know is that these addresses are weird, hard to memorize and probably change regularly, so your mileage may vary.

For example, the old address of Silk Road was http://silkroadvb5piz3r.onion. (And if you’re still a little behind the curve on what the whole deal was with Silk Road, it’s worth reading Adrian Chen’s piece about it for from 2011.)

So I went looking around to see what I could find on the Dark Web. My first stop was a site called TorLinks that is a list of sites operating in the .onion domain space. There I found links for what appeared to be a bit of a seedy and primitive underbelly of the Internet. But at the same time, when you look at them, it’s hard not to imagine that the whole thing is some kind of put-on.

Topping the list were “financial services,” or sites advertising services related to Bitcoin, the untraceable digital currency that is apparently the coin of the realm in this corner of the Internet. I also found working links to two sites offering counterfeit currency: One offered $5,000 worth of fake American $50 bills for the Bitcoin equivalent of $2,000; another offered 6,000 fake euro notes in 50 euro denominations for 1,900 euro worth of Bitcoin.

There’s also a “services” section. One site advertises a “rent-a-hacker” service. Another sells fake passports and ID cards. It turns out that Ross Ulbricht, the 29-year-old San Francisco man whom the FBI arrested for operating the Silk Road site, had attracted the attention of the Department of Homeland Security when he ordered a bunch of fake IDs delivered to his home.

There’s even a site offering contract killings in the U.S., Canada and the European Union. The going rate: $10,000 worth of Bitcoin in the U.S. and Canada, $12,000 in Europe. And yes, it totally looked like a put-on. But then, what do I know?

You’ll just have to find out for yourselves, but you can probably imagine what’s there: Guns, ammo, drugs, porn, stolen credit card numbers, etc. There are links to numerous message forums dedicated to revolutionary politics and wacky conspiracy theories. You get the idea. It reminded me of the early 1990s-era Internet, before the Web itself was mainstream, but not in a good way.

There’s also a search engine called Torch that claims to have indexed 117,367 pages in the .onion space. Some searches I did worked, some timed out. Again, your mileage may vary. After a couple hours of exploration I got thoroughly bored. You probably will, too.

(Image courtesy of A Large Evil Corporation)

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