The Internet has been part of our daily lives for more than a decade at this point. But even as the online world has become the defacto place to shop, bank and conduct business, the bad neighborhoods that have always existed are still there. We're talking about the parts of Internet Town that politicians, preachers and antivirus evangelists are always warning us away from. To hear them tell it, the streets on the seedy end of Internet town are filled with child molesters, pornographers, drug fiends and copyright pirates. Thing is, the rabbit hole goes a lot deeper than that. Turns out the wrong side of the Internet's tracks has its own wrong side of the tracks
You'll hear this nebulous region described by a variety of names. Some call it the “dark web” (spooky!) or you might hear it referred to as the “deep web” (mysterious!). Trouble is, these terms both designate other specific, proscribed areas of the internet (pedestrian!).
The “deep web” refers to the areas the “crawlers” of the major search engines can't reach. Crawlers are software robots the search engines have built to move through the web's pages, following all their links and indexing them. If a crawler can't reach a site (or can't travel through it easily), it doesn't show up in search results, making it quasi-invisible. With most deep web sites you aren't missing much. Deep web sites include databases, interactive applications, sites that are password-protected, sites that use dynamically built pages, or sites that require proof of humanity (e.g. the increasingly annoying Captcha system). Individual sites can also ask not to be crawled by embedding certain code in their directories. As you're probably picking up, the deep web is not so scary.
Also not scary is “dark Internet,” which refers to unreachable areas of the Internet – places that have no links in or out, either by design or through disrepair. Imagine walling off a room in your house. After six months you might even forget it exists. And there aren't any parties going on in there.
But there is a party going on somewhere. And it's the kind of party where dangerous people hang out. Where hard drugs are dealt openly and if you really want to (and you have the cash) you can find someone to kill your wife, no questions asked. There are even some super creepy dudes in the corner trading photos of the most terrible acts humans can do to other humans (Pro tip: Do not make eye contact). This party is going on in what is essentially an imaginary place, so we're going to give it an imaginary name, The Nether Realm.
Since the dawn of the Internet, savvy hackers have known how to protect their identities online. It's a prerequisite for any serious digital meddling. (If you're going to hack the CIA, it doesn't pay to leave a business card behind.) But in recent years, tools have appeared that make it shockingly simple to disguise your identity and access the Net's forbidden alleys. The simplest is a free system called Tor, which stands for The Onion Router (torproject.org). Tor is a combination of software and a server network. It runs on your machine and automates an old hacker trick–it routes your internet traffic through remote computers (sometimes halfway across the world) to disguise your identity. When you run Tor and launch its custom browser, it chooses three servers at random then directs all your browser's page requests through them. They function like layers of an onion (hence the name), with each server's location hidden from each successive layer. The end result: even if someone is watching a particular web site and can see that certain content is being accessed, they have no idea who is on the receiving end.
If the foregoing paragraph made no sense to you, then you are Tor's target demographic. The program is expressly designed for non-techies, while still providing strong levels of security. “We try to hop jurisdictions as well as servers,” says Karen Reilly, Development Director for the Tor Project. “If all our relays were in one country, it would be far too easy to shut us down. Basically we try to err on the side of paranoia.”
Tor was originally developed in 1999 by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory as a way to disguise the military's digital communications. In 2006 it was taken over by the nonprofit Tor Project and released as a free (and radically disruptive) public service that protected dissidents, whistleblowers and abuse victims. That's the good news. But as Reilly points out, “We don't actually know what people are using it for. That's the point. We don't keep logs. No one has all the data about what you're doing. It's impossible for us to trace people through our own network.”
Which means less noble folk are free to use it as well. One of the most notorious sites accessible through Tor, Silk Road, is essentially an open market for almost anything anyone might want to buy, regardless of legality. On a recent visit, I found prescription drugs for sale alongside crack and heroin and a rainbow array of different strains of marijuana. Want a full course of the antibiotic Azithromycin? It'll set you back about $25. Not a bad deal if you don't have health insurance. A bottle of nitroglycerin spray (for heart problems) is a hair under $80. Or maybe you'd prefer 100IU of human growth hormone (around $260). Perhaps we could interest you in a German state-issued ID? A British driver's license?
Of course all the things Silk Road bans are available elsewhere in the Nether Realm. It took us all of 30 seconds to find someone to sell us a gun, about five more minutes to find someone to pull the trigger. The going rate on assassinations appears to be hovering around $20,000 (half up front, half on completion). And while it might be titillating to be a lookie-loo into this kind of thing, things get pretty stomach-turning beyond that with videos and pictures that range from the merely disgusting to the deeply evil. When using Tor it pays to remember there are things you can't unsee, even if no one can prove you've seen them.
But while Tor is the simplest and most conveniently packaged solution, it's not the only free anonymizing tool out there. Back in 2000, Ian Clarke released a program called Freenet which allows its users to create ad hoc private decentralized networks to distribute information. It has been downloaded millions of times and is one of the more common Internet tools used by those evading detection in authoritarian regimes. Clarke says the creep factor is part of what freedom costs. “Most tools can be misused, just as most if not all freedoms can be misused. But on balance freedom does more good than harm. Child porn is terrible and wish it didn't exist, but I don't think the rest of us should be denied the freedom to communicate just because a small number of people might use that freedom in a disgusting way. We should not give them that power.”
And in the good news department, the Nether Realm has its own vigilante police force in the form of activist hackers. In 2011, “hacktivist” group Anonymous knocked 40 child porn sites offline and exposed the names and identifying information of 1,500 people who had been using the sites.
Because if we've learned one thing about the Internet, there is always another layer below the one you're on; another rock to overturn with even stranger and slimier life writhing underneath. Cybercrime professionals have been trying to enforce a basic level of online law enforcement for 20 years now. In the real world if you patrolled the same neighborhood for 20 years, that experience would make your job easier. But controlling online crime is harder today than it has ever been. “It's a growth industry,” says Ferguson. “It's the wild west, and I don't mean that in a cute way.”
Given the depth of the criminal operations going on online and the impunity with which they operate, it's even more important that products like Tor and Freenet are available to protect average, law-abiding citizens. “We did not create Tor for criminals,” says Karen Reilly, “but one of the philosophies behind Tor is giving ordinary citizens the same tools that criminals have.” Amen to that. Just steer clear of the “short eyes” creeps in the corner and try not to get yourself into too much trouble.