I’ll never forget the time that I came across a huge archive of old BBS text files, back when cell phones were still bricks and dialup was the norm. There were hundreds of them, and these text files captured my attention for months. As a kid, the Internet fascinated me like nothing in my life had before. Back then it was a different place, a wild west of eccentric nerds, anarchists and hippies, and you could explore pockets of strange and esoteric information down an endless rabbit hole. It wasn’t the strip mall of startups and e-commerce that we know today.

Those BBS files were a glimpse into a Bohemian culture that believed in freely sharing information, some practically applicable in an innocent, regular person’s day-to-day life, some of a more philosophical bent, and others that could teach you how to do quite a bit of damage. You could find out how to start a herb garden just as easily as you could learn how to terrorize your neighborhood with The Anarchist’s Cookbook. You could find immense troves of ASCII art depicting everything from Batman to breasts. You could laugh through a long list of college pranks or learn about counterfeiting money from the Jolly Roger. The gigantic libraries of occult material were always somewhat confounding given that the pre-mainstream web was filled with self-styled hackers and engineers.

I had seen enough social panic stories on the Internet to know that there was much worse out there. The Internet has always been a haven for child pornographers and pedophiles, giving them access to tools for anonymous communications and distribution that had never existed before. Amateur terrorists, such as David Copeland, suddenly had easier access to bomb recipes than ever before, allowing them to kill and maim many. Al-Qaeda themselves are said to have used the Internet for bomb making advice. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1994, Usenet posters sat around discussing ways the bomb involved could have been better constructed.

We’re desensitized to TV catchphrases like child porn and bomb recipes. The media has relied on topics like these every time news has gotten slow to try and spark up a scare, so we no longer really think about what the availability of this material really means, or what these things are like outside an abstract concept danced around with euphemisms – what they are really like when they are staring at you as a visceral reality.

But make no mistake. Right under your nose, just a few clicks away from any capable Internet user, is a deep, dark world of human filth and depravity that would leave even the most avid horror film buff shaking.

Accessing the deep Web: Tor and The Hidden Wiki

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Today, the most horrifying communities aren’t on BBS systems or Usenet, two examples of technologies that made life easier for the good guys and gave the bad guys less risky ways to communicate. There’s some pretty bad stuff available on the surface layer of the web, but that’s not where the worst of it is. You’ve probably heard about the deep web, a phrase that is obtuse and employed differently in various contexts. That’s because it is so hard to define: almost another Internet beyond the one you can access with a Google search, one that is many times larger than the mind-boggingly large Internet we know, and one where it is easy to hide, anonymously and mostly safe from law enforcement.

In one sense the deep web refers to things like your online banking account, since nobody can easily get to your balance – it is hidden behind an authentication system that requires you to use a username and password, and sometimes other measures such as two-part authentication, to access.

The other deep web refers to content that can only be accessed behind an anonymizing wall, using services like Tor – which stands for The Onion Router – to resolve addresses that can’t be addressed by your regular browser. In Tor’s case, these end in .onion instead of .com or .org, and are usually constantly changing so they’re never in one place for too long.

One of these sites is The Hidden Wiki, a directory to all the other ever-changing addresses. Some of this stuff is fairly pedestrian and totally acceptable material. Much of it is not. Proponents claim that The Hidden Wiki, as a directory, is innocent in all of this and is just providing free and open information – but anyone with common sense who takes a look knows that this isn’t just about free speech; the site basically endorses illegal content simply by volume if nothing else.

The black market

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By now, pretty much everyone is familiar with the Silk Road; it has been covered extensively by journalists and has caught the attention of legislators looking, probably in vain, for ways to thwart it. If you’re not aware, Silk Road is like the eBay of the deep web: any user can sign up and anonymously sell goods in a number of categories for BitCoins, and buyers can leave feedback on their purchases.

The site is audaciously named after the trading routes across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe that connected the regions commercially and culturally in ancient times, and is a reference to the silk that the Chinese, who developed the bulk of those routes, traded along them.

Even though Silk Road is far from a major trade route, given that it’s a hidden site in the backwaters of the Internet, it may still deserve the name – Forbes reports that it does $22 million in annual sales. In the tech world, that’s paltry, but in the world of BitCoin-driven anonymous drug dens it’s quite another thing altogether.

The problem with Silk Road isn’t inherently that it is an anonymous market. It’s the products being sold there. If you’re familiar with Silk Road, you might be surprised to see Home & Garden products availablebut you can also obtain a broad range of drugs, from Xanax, to marijuana, to heroin.

And though there’s a Books section with 690 listings at the time of this writing, second in size only to the 3099 listings under Drugs, you’ll also find forgeries from passports to driver licenses available in a range of countries. There are also firearms sold on the site from time to time, though none were present when I looked.

For those after drugs, there’s quite a range of other sites on the deep web. Hidden Wiki alone lists 9 drug marketplaces, Silk Road included. By contrast, there are only two listed firearms marketplaces. Another service sells counterfeit US $100 bills, with a sales pitch suggesting that it’s better to get $100 than $15 when you cash out your BitCoins.

Hitmen and crime

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If you can get Tor working, you can also hire a hitman.

At least, that’s what is advertised. Over several days doing research for this story, I came across at least five sites for those claiming to be hitmen, contractable via anonymous messaging methods and payable in BitCoin.

The price given on the bulk of these sites, almost as if there’s some kind of price-fixing hitman’s association, is around US$20,000. At first I thought there was no way these sites could be real with such low valuation on someone’s right to live. Frighteningly enough, a 2009 Slate article suggests that these prices are actually pretty normal, citing FBI data on cases that ranged from $600 to $25,000.

Two of these hitmen have scaling fee schedules. One of them cites a cost of 20,000 Euros for “some ordinary person” while a high-ranking cop or journalist costs 100,000 Euros. Much like the Enterprise option on so many startup sign-up pages, there’s an option with no cost given. “To eliminate your rich wife/husband, price depend from wealth of that person.”

Obviously, having a realistic price doesn’t prove that any of these services are legitimate. But if Marissa Mark, who tried to have her ex-partner’s girlfriend killed in 2006, could find a hitman on the clearnet there’s little reason to exclude the possibility of real offers being made on the deep web given the easy access to drugs, guns and child porn that it provides – not to mention the convenient protection of identities for both parties in the event law enforcement finds one or the other.

While we can’t exclude the possibility, it’s not likely that BitCoin transactions are appealing to hardened criminals. Internet historian and folklorist Miso Susanowa says that while the currency has strong potential for this element of society, it has a way to go.

“I don’t think BitCoin is widely used or secure enough to tempt any hardcore criminal types. It might be used to pay for small amounts of drugs. The type of assassin being advertised or sought would be pretty foolhardy to use such avenues,” says Susanowa. “There are ways to back-hack up the machine chain, as well as to steal BitCoins. There have been a few well-publicized incidents on just that, so I’d think a professional would be pretty leary of such a volatile source of finance, not to mention one that is less anonymous than cash in hand.”

But the deep Web isn’t made up entirely of hardened criminals. Marissa Mark’s hitman had never killed someone before, and people in tough financial situations will sometimes go to extremes to survive. A brief tour of deep web forums will reveal many clueless first-timers willing to do anything to get cash they require quickly. Trained mercenaries won’t be on the deep Web, but can you hire a desperado to do a rough job for a few hundred BitCoins? It’s not unlikely given the types of people who hang out in the deep web.

If you don’t want someone dead but you do want them scared, there’s a less extreme alternative. One service uses prank calls to get law enforcement sent to given addresses. A mild situation with a few cops will cost you $5. For $10, you’ll get a large police raid. For $20, this reputable merchant will get a SWAT team sent to your target address. They link to an incident in New Jersey that locked an entire neighborhood down for eight hours due to a bomb threat and claim it as their work.

If you’d prefer to get your hands dirty rather than hiring others to commit crimes for you, there’s a forum for budding criminals to discuss their exploits and provide each other with tips, too. The Crime Network is home to threads such as “How to – Amphetamin[sic]”, “How do you get into dealing?” and “What can be done about a corpse?”, a thread that suggests dissolving a body in lye is the speediest route for its level of effectiveness. Respondents chimed in with such charming statements as “using lye, 70% of the bones and teeth would remain… which I guess can be dumped in the ocean, or dissolved with an acid and then dumped,” and “I’d advise not to cut anyone up, as its gonna be messy, and laborious increasing your chances of leaving genetics behind, or cutting yourself, or caught in the act.”

The majority of posters on Crime Network are more than likely basement-dwellers who think they’re anarchists, but that doesn’t exclude the few real criminals that participate or make it a family-friendly destination. This isn’t quite the same as fans discussing inconsistencies in Dexter. Information of a shady nature is widely available on the “clearnet” – the Internet we know and use every day – and on the deep Web, but perhaps one of the really creepy applications of anonymous communications is the potential for criminals to assist each other in the real world with some plausible deniability on the identity of other participants.

Deep Web folklore: Human experiments

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Look around deep Web forums enough and you’ll find the topic of human experimentation referenced fairly often. Many of the sites referenced in these threads don’t exist anymore, and anyone can put up an onion site. There’s no real reason to believe that these sites are anything more than fakes.

Unlike child pornography, where its existence is proof of it having been produced, distributed and viewed by pedophiles, sites like these are hard to authenticate. Even if the folklore were real, owners of human experimentation sites would have a great deal of difficulty proving it.

It is a reminder that for every reason we have to put our faith in humanity, there’s a reason not to. Illegal human experiments and organ extraction account for a portion of human trafficking around the world, particularly in Asia where the black market for organs is reported to be the strongest.

The Human Experiment claims to have four operational warehouses, each with a capacity for up to 20 test subjects. The front page claims that experiments include starvation and fluid restriction, vivisection, infectious diseases, drug trials, sterilization and neonatal and infant tolerances to various things.

“The people chosen for this range of experiments are usually homeless people that are unregistered citizens,” the site says. “The bodies of the dead are dissected and then disposed of in dumpsters of meat shops where their bodies will not be found.”

The site claims to be run by a team composed of three nurses, six medical students, two medical interns, and three medical residents, but the spelling and grammar mistakes around the site and the juvenile label for the group, the “High Council,” are not the first things to give the troll behind the site away.

Have there ever been any real experimentation groups with presences on the deep Web as per the urban legends of the place? I doubt there have been, and this one isn’t. Even though some amount of illegal human experimentation happens in the world, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to put up an easily accessible website on the matter and risk giving any extra leads to law enforcement than is strictly necessary.

There’s a line between human experimentation and the simply deranged, though. Snuff films are a reality, no doubt about it. The most likely candidates for posting verifiably real torture and experimentation content on the Internet are individuals.

“There was a recent high-profile incident where a supposed killer posted videos on the net of his actions. That film was passed around for only around three days before the killer was tracked down thanks to clues in the videos,” says Miso Susanowa. It is possible that a mentally unstable person could post information or footage related to some kind of violent activity under the guise of ‘experimentation’ but “professionals wouldn’t advertise. They’d stick to a closed network of fanciers.”

It’s still a twisted mind that would try and pass off a chart containing results of a supposed cold tolerance test, with information such as body temperature at time of death, as real.

Sex and child porn

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Let’s get the heaviest stuff out of the way first. Once you arrive on front page of the Hidden Wiki, you are a mere two clicks away from looking at child porn. It is hideously easy to access. You may have to install Tor first, but if you had any conceptions about child pornography on the Web being hidden in hard-to-access communities of secretive pedophiles whose lingo and handshakes you must prove knowledge of before entry, forget them.

I’ve watched a number of episodes of SVU and Criminal Minds where my wife has had to leave the room to get it back together. The same thing happened when she saw the ending of Game of Thrones’ second season premiere. I, on the other hand, have never really understood the urge to throw up dinner based on psychological stimuli. I cringed through the first Saw movie, but that was about it.

During my time researching this part of the story I was more careful than I’ve ever been about where I went, and thankfully was not exposed to any imagery. I didn’t go any deeper than the directory listing. But just seeing what was listed here caused my stomach to clench up and my hands to shake, and I had to get away from the computer and spend the rest of the evening keeping my kids close.

It is clear at this point how concentrated the pedophile community is in the deep Web. The two directory pages for this kind of material are probably just as extensive or more so than the listings for drugs, firearms, and innocuous material on the front page combined.

One link is called The Family Album, described as a place for “exclusive private child sex material by the members” – like a user-generated content site for child porn. Another is called Kindergarten Porn. There are links sorted by gender and age preferences. There are guides with titles such as “Your Own Pedo Site,” “Producing kiddie porn for dummies,” and “How to practice child love,” an ebook on the actual practice of targeting, seducing and engaging in sexual acts with children that has been the target of quite a bit of mainstream media coverage.

And then there’s Newgon, a site dedicated to child-love. It’s accessible from the clearnet, but forms part of the deep Web’s pedophile community discourse. There’s no porn here, just people writing about and discussing their attraction to minors. It sounds tamer in theory, but I’m not sure what is creepier: clearly exploitative pornography that doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is, or molesters and the molested justifying the experience in writing, arguing that the experience is natural and has positive benefits for both parties involved.

One quote on the site reads:

“A fourteen-year-old French girl wrote in her diary in 1978, after having slept with a 47-year-old man, ‘This was the most marvelous day of my life, the most beautiful Christmas gift. Everything I did was deliberate, and everything that happened was at my initiative.’ Unfortunately the girl’s parents, after reading these pages, succeeded in having the man who gave their daughter this wonderful experience sent to prison. The feelings of the child were of no importance.”

There are a few links – a small scattering in comparison to the lists of illegal child pornography – to regular porn, and another small collection for bestiality and mutilation fetishists. I don’t even want to try and confirm my fears about what you might find on a site called ZooNecro-chan. This place caters to the tastes of the most depraved individuals. It makes the most extreme clearnet porn look as tame as a Page Three girl.

The deep Web’s sexual content is not entirely made up by pornography. One site, the Tor Sex Worker Review Board, allows users to share their experiences with prostitutes. One forum posting calls a massage parlor that has some suspicious posters of women in lingerie out the front a scam because they don’t escalate beyond a hand, foot and ear massage.

The website Brimstone Entertainment, on the other hand, provides a place for strippers, escorts and adult entertainers to advertise their services in various cities. And other marketplaces, similar to but less populated than Silk Road, have sections for sex slaves. “Basically, I’m offering myself up for sexual or non-sexual servitude. I’m 5’11” 160lbs and strong enough to do what you wish. I have pictures and other details can be hammered out personally,” reads one.

The role of anonymity

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While illegal material online is by no means confined to the deep Web, it is certainly rampant here. You can almost understand why some commentators have called for the dismantling of such networks in favor of a single, regulated clearnet. The problem is that there’d be no real advantage in shutting down services like Tor and Freenet, but there would be a great many downsides.

“Criminals already have access to many other pretty effective means of anonymous communication,” said Seth Schoen, Senior Staff Technologist at the Electric Frontier Foundation, an organization that defends our rights in the digital world. Botnets are just one example. “There are lots of botnets where millions of innocent end-users’ communications have been taken over by malicious software for criminal purposes,” he says.

Botnets are used by groups like the Russian Business Network for their own gain and as a service rented to others, providing spammers and other criminal elements with a large, powerful network and ironclad privacy.

Schoen points out that the disciplined user can get pretty good anonymity just by using public networks in public places. “There are plenty of ways to slip up,” he points out.

Services like Tor provide the tools needed for people to communicate openly and freely on an anonymous level. People living in oppressive countries such as Iran and North Korea or in suppressive countries such as China are able to use Tor as a gateway to the rest of the world, and most importantly as a place to have access to real news and a greater range of viewpoints and more safely contribute their own viewpoints to open discussions.

“The technical and social costs involved in trying to dramatically limit anonymity online are very high!” says Schoen. The oppressed are just one group to consider. “Tor is also useful to law enforcement for investigating anonymously, by making it unclear to people that they’re communicating with law enforcement agents.”

Most of us in the West understand the importance of free speech – even free speech we don’t like – to the integrity of our societies. It is true that child pornography is obviously not comparable to free speech we dislike, but that’s beside the point. Tor is not inherently about supporting child porn or any illegal activity, just as paper is not responsible when child porn is printed on it and the postal service is not responsible when pedophiles share pictures in the mail.

As Schoen mentioned, there are plenty of ways for pedophiles and other criminals to communicate anonymously, including methods much more difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate and monitor.

“Most law enforcement agencies feel that they don’t have anywhere near the resources they would like to investigate even a fraction of the things they could investigate using their existing powers and existing technologies!” says Schoen. “Anonymity services are probably not a bottleneck for most crimes today, although they can be frustrating for law enforcement in particular cases.”

One issue a little more mundane than child pornography is spam. “There are a lot of spammers out there making money and using various means to conceal their identity. They are rarely investigated or prosecuted, but this is probably more because of a lack of law enforcement resources than because locating the spammers is technically impossible. Some spammers may well use systems like Tor, but it doesn’t seem to be a major factor in why law enforcement isn’t more effective at deterring online spam and fraud.”

The good of the Internet

Yes, there is a seedy, horrible underbelly to the Internet that reveals the worst in humanity. It’s not pleasant, and it’s not right that people are out there producing, enjoying and acting on this stuff. But we must remember not to vilify the Internet.

Like many things humans have created, the Internet has downsides, but the benefits that we receive from having it are greater on the whole. Here are just a few:

Instant communication with distant loved ones; a greater sense of a global humanity, rather than nationalist pride; knowing which flavor of tuna your second cousin’s best friend’s mother is eating right now; sharing family moments such as weddings with that grandfather who was too sick to make it; vibrant communities for those with obscure and often lonely hobbies; grocery shopping from your home; strangers who perform random acts of kindness; a TV schedule you choose instead of a TV schedule you have to work around; incomes for millions from startup CEOs to career eBay sellers; a participatory media with fast and dynamically changing news distribution; the hundreds of friends you probably have who you’d never have met if it weren’t for the Internet. I haven’t even scratched the surface.

If we allow the fearful and reactive to control the Internet, prepare for the worst. The sickest of the sick will always have another place to go where they can feel free to be depraved. The oppressed will be silenced, the people will have their every movement monitored and nobody in any spectrum of society will gain from the exercise.

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Image Credits: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/Getty Images, Joern Pollex/Getty Images, Christopher Furlong/Getty Images, Christiana Care, Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images