The ‘deep’ Internet: what and where it is?

 

The Silk Road website is apparently back in business, thanks to the FBI as a trap or the original entrepreneurs minus the founder

Remember how in high school  you learned about European merchants trading with China and the Middle East during the latter part of the Middle Ages? Merchants from Italian city-states such as Venice, including their most famous world traveler, Marco Polo, braved incredible hardships for years. Marco certainly put today’s ‘road warriors’ to shame—he was on the road for 24 years straight, allegedly to bring back ‘spices’ to be sold back home in Europe, with his goal to become rich.

Spices??? Merchants traveled for years just to bring back spices and silks from Asia? I doubt it. I’d be willing to bet that these intrepid explorers showed up with more than just salt, pepper and paprika stashed in their travel bags, after risking their life every day for years.Most likely they also returned home loaded up with opium, for which European royalty would have paid handsomely. 

Remember what dental care was like in those days? There wasn’t any. The source of morphine and codeine had to be in high demand for its painkilling properties alone, leave alone for its ability to spice up an evening in a cold, damp castle with no electricity, TV, Netflix, or GTA5.

The most famous of these old trade routes was called the Silk Road, which not coincidentally happens to be the name of the recently FBI-shuttered drug website, Silk Road. This site, from all indications, was aptly named. It was an ‘anonymous’ site accessible only via the ‘Tor’ network with a Tor browser, and on that site people bought and sold all sorts of drugs in rather large quantities, often using that new electronic exchange mechanism, bitcoin. Ross Ulbricht, the alleged owner and mastermind of Silk Road, was also arrested. For some strange reason he lived in the US, perhaps the last place I’d choose to live (not counting Saudi Arabia or Iran) if I were running a worldwide illegal drug retail/wholesale website. Ross Ulbricht, who looks like Mr. Clean Cut, was arrested in San Francisco while using the wireless at the local public library, and even had a LinkedIn page (his ‘public profile’ pictured below). He didn’t have that many ‘connections’ or ‘recommendations’ on LinkedIn, but it’s probably too late to ask him to join your network, and ‘endorsing’ him might be a bad idea. Does Ross know about websites? Entrepreneurship? Salesforce.com?

A sample page showing what's for sale on Silk Road on the deep Internet

Alleged founder and mastermind of Silk Road's LinkedIn page
 
So what is this ‘deep Internet’ where Silk Road existed? What’s the Tor network and what the heck’s a bitcoin? I’ll start by what Silk Road is not and where it is not. Where it isn’t (or wasn’t, since it’s now closed down) is anywhere you can get to with a regular browser like Chrome or Safari or Firefox or IE, and what it isn’t is one of those ‘appears completely legitimate’ websites where you can buy electronics or some such items, but also, if you know where to click and have a password, can enter pages not visible to the public to find out illegal information such as what code to key into your illegal decoder so you can watch HBO for free. It’s also not those overseas pharmacies with prescription drugs offered for sale without a prescription. These are all regular websites, legitimate or not, but accessible to anyone with a common browser. You can’t get to the deep Internet via that trade route.

The ‘deep Internet’, also known as the ‘darknet’, refers to secret and hidden Internet websites only reachable with a Tor browser. If you are interested, a "relatively" easy (as in difficult but could be worse) to understand explanation is found here. I read a number of explanations about how this network maintains anonymity, and most seemed to be incorrect to at least some degree. I tried writing a nice, simplified version of how this all works, but had no luck. It’s quite complicated, and involves public keys, introduction points, one time secret codes, descriptors stored in hash tables, and randomly assigned relay points. The real short description is that it apparently works as advertised.There are a lot of strange sites out there, not all are illegal, although plenty are. Silk Road was on the ‘deep Internet’. This isn’t the same as the ‘dark Internet’, which pretty much means sites that you can’t get to at all. That isn’t quite so interesting.

A Tor browser can be downloaded at Torproject.org. It’s an easy install—I downloaded it, installed it, and now have a Tor browser, although I’m not sure what to do with it. The only URL I know on the deep Internet is for Silk Road, because it’s been in the news, but you won’t see much there since the FBI hung a closed sign on the door. The URL (public key) used to be  silkroadvb5piz3r.onion, but there are plenty more sites out there. I’m half afraid of what I’ll find out there, although I don't know where to start looking anyway.

However, as usual…….

The Tor browser also works for regular sites like Google, so I just Googled ‘tor links pastebin’, and sure enough, up pops a list that includes search engines and other links, some of which is incomprehensible, but I’d say a rule of thumb would be to avoid a lot of these sites…..you know what’s on the regular web…..this stuff is beyond that. Want to buy a rocket launcher, fake passport, drugs, or an endangered species for a pet? You’re probably in the right spot. Given the amount of surveillance that's no doubt out there, you also are probably in the right place to get in trouble. The most secret sites are invitation only, and I can't supply a link to any of those....to paraphrase Groucho Marx, "I wouldn't join any site that would invite someone like me to be a member."

To complete the story, what’s the Tor network? Tor used to be ‘TOR’, in all caps because it was an acronym for ‘the onion router’. It no longer stands for that, but the concept is the same, and it still does ‘onion routing’--It works like an onion, which has layers upon layers of encryption that need peeled away. The Tor network is for anonymous browsing, both because the traffic is encrypted, but more importantly perhaps, because by the time your Tor browser request reaches its destination, it’s hopped through a number of relay points,  randomly chosen from literally thousands of existing relay points, which makes it 'impossible' to trace who is communicating with which sites. You can see why sites such as Silk Road are on the Tor network.

Interestingly, the original TOR network with Onion routing was pioneered by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and Tor is still funded by various government agencies including the NSA. Also, speaking of the NSA, this network isn't used just by criminals by any means. It has a real libertarian bent to it, and it's a good way to keep your online life secret. You won't have ads popping up making it look like your emails were read if you are on the Tor network.

So how did Mr. Ross Ulbricht get caught by the FBI? There are a lot of stories around about this, but from what I can gather it’s roughly the high tech equivalent of a drug dealer hauling bales of marijuana in his trunk who gets caught because he was pulled over for speeding or had a license plate light out. The ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, Ross’s online moniker, apparently got sloppy and watched a few too many episodes of Breaking Bad. He used his actual Gmail address in some online communication which linked him to the site, plus he allegedly hired two killers to bump off two people who were ripping off his site. As everyone should know by now, most of the hired killers you’re likely to locate are really undercover agents, and these fellows were no exception—they were FBI agents. Just my opinion, but that story sounds a little fishy--how would Ulbricht know who the people were trying to rip off his site? Assuming they were anonymous, how would he find them?

So the site is closed, and although this might have been the most famous site, there are and will be more--just Google them. The Tor network is intact, and unless the FBI is fooling us, they didn’t locate the Dread Pirate Roberts (a name taken from The Princess Bride) by breaking Tor encryption and routing. Rather, it was just old fashioned police work combined with overconfidence on Ulbricht's part.

Lastly, what are bitcoins? They are at first a strange concept, but if you think about it they make perfect sense. I’m not going to go into details of how they are created, but the main characteristics are that they are virtual money, they are virtually impossible to counterfeit, there is a limited quantity which can be made, they are accepted on many websites, and most importantly, they have a value that’s determined on the open market—they are bought and sold on exchanges. Sound crazy? Think twice and then look in your wallet. See that $20 bill………it’s just a piece of paper, and the government is dumping so much money into the economy that if they were printing them, they’d have every printer working full time around the clock. Now there's an idea for a stimulus package: Start actually printing all the money the Fed is generating electronically. With the advent of digital books and junk email, printers are suffering. They'd be backlogged for centuries if the government just abandoned electronic money!

And, cash is traceable—try taking in $5,000 in cash to the bank to deposit. It’s all tracked, which is why bitcoins are so popular amongst those who don’t want transactions tracked. There are no bank fees, no taxes, no jail, no IRS audits, etc. There’s a lot to recommend them, which is why the governments of the world are trying to contain them. Right now one bitcoin is worth about $200.

It’s quite a world out there.