February 21, 2013

In the deep, dark depths of the Internet, hidden from Google’s all-seeing eye, lies the Silk Road: It’s a black-market-Amazon, within which normal ideas of an internet marketplace disappear into a murk of encrypted currency and illegal contraband. The website has perhaps brought more attention to the existence of ‘the Deep Web’ than anything else […]

In the deep, dark depths of the Internet, hidden from Google’s all-seeing eye, lies the Silk Road: It’s a black-market-Amazon, within which normal ideas of an internet marketplace disappear into a murk of encrypted currency and illegal contraband.

The website has perhaps brought more attention to the existence of ‘the Deep Web’ than anything else before or after it. The Deep Web, though it sounds menacing, is essentially an umbrella term for the online content that cannot be reached or indexed by search engines we use on a daily basis. The majority of it has not been deliberately hidden, but for technical reasons has not been catalogued or updated. The little-explored information repository can contain content ranging from the innocent and informative to the horrific and illegal. It’s a domain where terrorists, paedophiles and people with skewed moral compasses supposedly use restricted forums and intranets for terrible things.

I have sampled the delights of the Silk Road first hand, hearing about the site from a friend who used it to buy pills. Not paracetamol, or some knock-off protein supplement, but big red ones bearing Ferrari-badge etchings, allegedly containing close to 200 milligrams of MDMA. My own experience with the product was a wholly positive one. I had just one, while a few friends had several in a short space of time, transforming them into Orcs for the majority of the night.

In order to reach Silk Road, you first have to download a piece of software called Tor. Originally funded by the US navy, Tor is a peer-to-peer network that enables online anonymity by directing internet traffic through the worldwide network of Tor users, concealing a user’s location and internet usage from surveillance and traffic analysis. The anonymity offered by Tor is furthered by Silk Road’s adoption of the crypto-currency Bitcoin.

Though it has been described as “the hacker currency that’s taking over the web” by Guardian headlines, the average Internet user has probably never heard of it. Ebay or Amazon are not forcing it upon us, and we aren’t required to convert pounds into Bitcoins to complete transactions in regular online shops, so the above headline seems a tad sensationalist. However, on Silk Road, you need Bitcoins to buy stuff. Stuff like Adderall or Methamphetamine. Though there are undoubtedly people out there who see it as a revolutionary alternative, which takes power away from banks, financial services and governments, here it is used not in protest, but in necessity. So a purchase of high-grade illicit drugs cannot be traced back to you for example. Key to its appeal and usage, there is no Bitcoin bullion lying in a Swiss bank. It only exists because the users of Tor agree that it does.

I downloaded Tor so I could access Silk Road myself. After extracting and running it, was I now free to peruse the January sales of a black-market Amazon? I opened up the browser for the first time and was met with a primitive-looking homepage that offered me a bold, green “Congratulations” followed by a confirmation that my browser was now configured to use Tor.

While firing up this deep web browser, I was reading through a tech blog for the first time in my life. This particular blog was authored by a man with a ginger beard and a rat on each shoulder. His blog was unusually devoid of jargon, but suggested that I, someone with bugger all know-how when it comes to computers, should be worried. Apparently “using Tor without some basic precautions is worse than not using Tor at all, leading to privacy violations, data theft, and security concerns.” To my knowledge, I had not taken these basic precautions and I’m fairly sure my anti-virus ran out a few months back.

Further down in the article, the author clarified the threats a Tor user has to be concerned about; personally identifiable information (PII) that you send out, code sent to you that will reveal your identity from inside Tor and code sent to you that will reveal your identity from outside Tor. Steeling myself against these potential security issues, I continued on.

Another tech blog gave me the URL that would lead me down the Silk Road. An unusually long combination of seemingly random numbers and letters, the address is deliberately tough to remember. It led me to a simple login/join page so ahead I went and clicked join, and after a fairly long wait by today’s internet standards, I was led to a similar page with a registration form. Here I entered a username, passphrase and PIN– random characters, combinations of booking references and train times. After another wait of around 30 seconds, with my pessimism growing, I was suddenly confronted with the homepage: Welcome! Silk Road anonymous market.

The homepage of the site displays 12 example products, in three rows of four, just as if you were on any normal shopping website. Down the left hand side were categories of products, a vast range, including fireworks, erotica and jewellery. Dominating the rest of the categories by number of items for sale was the category Drugs.

The twelve products on the homepage reflected this dominance. They included strands of weed – 1 gram of Mossad and 3.5 of Sour Diesel. There was your standard 1 gram of MDMA. There was your not-so-standard 500gs of Ketamine, an amount that if caught with, would put you in considerable legal difficulty – try passing that off as personal use. There was also Clonazepam, Zolpidem, Sciroxx, 2CB, 2CI, 1g of raw Himalayan Opium and, next to it, a mint chocolate bar. On the dedicated page of one product; 15g of Crystal Meth, with a description stating it was “the best crystal we have seen come out of America and touch UK shores.” At the bottom of the page was a Customer Reviews chart. The latest post gave a rating of 5 out of 5:

“Arrive in less than a day. Great camouflage packing! Have not taste yet. Thanks again!!!”

A quick scan of the Opiates category and up pops all the Heroin you could want. Checking out 500mg of Purified Cold Shoot IV Ready Heroin, it was interesting to note that the user, for your safety, tests every batch on himself to ensure that it is clean and has no strange reactions. What a guy. His customers sing his praises to no end. He is “the best”, “the most reliable vendor”, “his orders are always perfect”. Perhaps my favourite comment in the reviews section though:

“Man…J**** is the best! Ordered it in the middle of the day Friday and it was in my mail box Monday! He is the best! Sorry it took till today to get to the internet.”

I think we all know why he took so long.

It isn’t just the hardcore though. In the Other category there is a sleeve of Camel cigarettes. Under Forgeries there are driving licences, passports and Insurance Cards. Erotica is mostly made up of Premium Account passwords for porn sites. Click on Books and you see manuals on how to synthesise MDMA, a bundle of 1700 eBooks for Kindle and the notorious Anarchist’s Cookbook. In this, you can find instructions on counterfeiting money, hot-wiring cars and making all manner of explosives, from nail bombs to Napalm. Down in its reviews, there are no terrorist manifestos but one user has “already learned how to pick my moms lock and got all her pills!”

Under the sub-category Dissociatives, I spot some MXE – the designer derivative of Ketamine and a dreaded agent of unpredictability. This seller is sending it out 1 gram at a time. How does this man work with all these single servings? Imagine his flat, full of little packages which he takes to the post-box the next day, 50 of them in a sack like Santa, flying out across the world to the grateful children of Tor and the Silk Road. What surprises me is that it is more common to see individual amounts of drugs than bulk batches. But whether sending out 0.5g of Heroin or 500g of Ketamine, there is money to be made just as there is via normal supply routes.

The Silk Road’s status as a marketplace where purchases cannot be seen, transactions cannot be traced and dealers cannot be followed home means it acts as a haven for drug deals, large or small. Here, there are no shifty, fumbled transactions down a side street or visits to a flat asking to be raided. A few clicks from the comfort of your home and someone on the other side of the world could be sending you large quantities of contraband.

For law enforcement agencies, the investigation of the Silk Road represents a formidable task. The anonymity that protects the users of the site is complex and multi-layered in nature. Attempting to take down the network would be expensive and time-consuming. As it stands, the buyers and sellers are seemingly free to operate; visiting the Silk Road is not in itself illegal, though possessing the products sold there is, in most jurisdictions. Perhaps more thorough screening methods at customs would mean more packages were intercepted? The one person I know who has actually used the Silk Road originally ordered 50 pills, to be shipped in 2 parcels of 15 and 1 of 20. The latter never showed up and as a result, my acquaintance isn’t so hot on the idea of using the site again.

Those interested in tearing up the Silk Road may look to attack the site’s network first, as without Tor, it cannot operate. However, the Silk Road and other anonymous online marketplaces, though notorious, do not represent the majority of Tor traffic. The network is routinely used by individuals suffering under oppressive regimes to communicate without fear of reprisal. Thus, disrupting the entire Tor network with the purpose of taking down Silk Road would come at a high collateral cost. Hacker groups such as Anonymous have also utilised their mastery of the deep web for good; hacking into Ugandan government websites in protest of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill and uncovering Tor-based child-porn websites are just a couple of examples.

The Tor network has also been used for arms deals. Until August 2012, it was even possible to buy weapons via the Silk Road’s sister site, The Armoury, which was taken down due to a lack of business. Prior to this, investigative reports by members of websites Gizmodo and The Sabotage Times had established that it was possible to make large custom orders to certain sellers on The Armoury – to equip paramilitary groups of 20 men with enough firepower to launch a military coup for example. With the Connecticut school shooting still fresh in the minds of people around the world, it is worrying that the shooter could have logged onto an anonymous online marketplace to buy his weapon, in much the same way as someone could buy a single gram of MDMA via the same means. It seems inevitable that politicians and those in favour of disrupting Deep Web access will lump these actions together, both supposedly conducted with a motivation to break the law.

While I personally am far too paranoid and computer illiterate to trust in Tor and Bitcoin’s anonymity measures myself, thousands of others do not hesitate to crawl the Deep Web, using it as a hiding place, a black market, a source of information or as a platform for protest. Somebody somewhere has just received class A drugs on their doormat, having bought it online in much the same fashion as you bought yourself a book off Amazon or clothes from Topshop. Welcome to the future.


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