Plumbing the depths of the ‘Dark Web’

Posted on March 16, 2015

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In recent months the concept of the Dark Web, has been raising its head in mainstream media, and popularised by the stories of the digital ‘Silk Road’, a hidden online market places. Conjuring up an Internet equivalent atmosphere of new frontiers and spice scented bazars stuffed with new wonders and an air of mystery. Well yes, and no, depending on your particular penchant. The digital ‘Silk Road’ market place (closed by US law enforcement) was little more than a crude, but functional and highly profitable, e.commerce website. It used BitCoin as its currency to preserve buyer anonymity and had few limitations on what could be bought or sold. Anything from Drugs to firearms, to illegal online (and offline) services that range from mercenary hackers to hitmen. Just point your everyday Internet Browser at the website ‘Deep.Dot.Web’ to see some of the other marketplaces in the same vein.

So how can this possibly exist under our very noses I get asked?

As with any confusion I see in people’s eyes when confronted with a new digital concept, it can almost always be referenced against the physical world and practices that are far from new or original. For all our perceived creativity,  ingenuity and adaptability, we are so very much creatures of habit, deviating little in our online practices to how we have conducted ourselves offline for millennia. Just consider your average website is little more than an electronic brochure, similarly an e-commerce site such as Amazon are digital shop window service counters, and the metaphors go on – cyber bullying, cyber squatting, hacking (burglary), jailbreaking etc all very familiar terms we are at home with and mean much the same in Cyber Space.

The DarkNet is an unseen (in the dark) expanse of network layers known in research circles as the deep web, invisible web, hidden web or Dark Web. It is in many forms little more than your average maze of Dark Alleys found in any large city, or social ‘no go areas’ lawless zones that in some parts of the world even the Police or army would not venture. You know the underbelly of that place you call home, no one would wander into at night or we try to ignore exits as we go about our materialistic lives. That does not mean they do not exist, or that this sub-culture lacks a place, they very much do, and for all the negative attention they do service the demands of society be that illicit or simply private. The Dark Web is the most commonly known subsection of the DarkNet and is estimated at over 8 billion pages. Compared with the web we are more familiar with at just over half this at 4.74 billion pages as of the last estimate by WorldWideWebSize.com

The Dark Web is an online content domain estimated to be 500 times larger (not just page count) than the surface Web most users relate to as ‘The Internet or The Web’. So if you thought your touchy feely, all colourful and convenient the web was big, just peal back a virtual carpet and take a peak you have been living in a 2 dimensional reality!

So how do you ‘Take a peak’ at the alternative dimensions?

The following represents a far from exhaustive guide as to how you can get a glimpse for yourself of what lives one virtual street back from eBay, Amazon, Tesco Online etc. There are many facets to the Dark Web and this brief missive will only start to scrape the surface for you.

To see the dark Web you need to use some new tools. Software that allows you to search into this hither too unseen realm that Internet Explorer, Google Chrome or Mozilla are blind too. For this exercise we are going to access one of the network layers of the Internet call the Tor Network.

  1. Go to Tor Project Website – The Tor Network and its software are some of the easiest tools for users to get started in protecting their anonymity online. A practice that goes hand in hand with surfing the Dark Web.
  2. Download the Tor Browser
  3. Install the software, there are both Mac and PC versions all very user friendly.
  4. Start the Tor Browser. This will do a couple of things in the background:
  5. Using the Tor Browser, open the website Grams Search engine . This will give you a search engine for the Dark Web, called ‘Grams’. All very Google’ish in the rip off branding and layout, nice of them to make you feel at home.

What is going on here is the following:

  • You are creating a connection to a segment of the Internet that is ‘Hidden’. A secure connection. It is very hard (not impossible) for your identity to be discovered (unless you volunteer it) when using the Tor Network.
  • You create a secure connection to the Tor network, you can read more on this at the Tor Project website above so I will not regurgitate it here.
  • The Tor Browser recognises ‘Onion’ addresses, pseudo domain addresses. The term Onion is used to reflect the layers of obfuscation that the Tor Network helps to peel back to reveal the Dark Web content.
  • You use the Tor Browser just like you would Internet Explorer or Google Chrome etc to browse the Dark Web.
  • The websites and resources you will find have a mixture of human friendly names and obscure strings of letters and numbers. The latter reflects the dynamic changing addresses of some of the Dark Web resources as they skip around keeping themselves hidden. These ‘dynamic’ resources are not always illegal, sometimes just resources that the owners wish to keep hidden but not behind a locked door.
  • You can use the Tor Browser to access conventional sites such as Google etc with the added advantage that you are preserving your anonymity. The only downside is it will not be quite so fast and will block many add-ons such as Flash and advanced HTML functionality used to enhance visitor experiences and unbeknown to many monitor user’s activities. Yes when you use Internet Explorer, Google Chrome etc you are laying yourself wide open to monitoring on a truly global scale.
  • The Dark Web websites often don’t look very ‘polished’. The Dark Web is more about efficiency than over fanciful features and eye candy that add little value. Its more business like. Think of a stripped out racing car, no user manual and Caveat Emptor all the way.

Off you go, the Dark Web is now visible to you. No magic and disappointingly simple as most things are in life once you get over human natures fear and uncertainty reflex to the unknown.

Before you go some final advice. When you register to access some of the esoteric market places on the Dark Web as one does, simply to peruse of course:

  1. DO NOT use your own name, sounds obvious but DON’T.
  2. Use a different alias (username) each time you register for a site. Inconvenient? Not as much as the unwanted attention you could attract.
  3. DO NOT use your usual email address, Google Gmail and Microsoft Outlook.com are two user friendly resources you can use to create a pseudo anonymous email account. A new secure email service from the guys at HideMyAss.com is available. Remember these are not 100% anonymous services.
  4. For greater degree’s of (nothing is 100% guaranteed) email anonymity you will have to resort to something like I2P-Bote
  5. If you want to be REALLY paranoid / secure in preserving your identity, use a temporary Cloud based Virtual Machine to do your Dark Web activities from which you can delete after each session. This ensures you NEVER risk contaminating your home PC with Dark Web material or leave a trail back to your home network. I find the free trials some cloud providers offer useful for this. But again I recommend you do not use a familiar user account when registering for these trials for this purpose.
  6. For other forms of Dark Web access and anonymity you should look at I2P  and specialised Virtual Machine instances, a subject for a later blog.

Now that’s better isn’t it, some nice cloak and dagger stuff!

Be safe, be secure and for a peaceful life be anonymous. Happy browsing.

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