Last night, in a temporary diversion from considering issues involving ethical architectural, engineering and construction marketing, I visited the dark web, a marketplace for drugs, porn, pirated software and stolen bank PINs and contact information.
My purpose in visiting the marketplace of evil wasn’t of course to participate — but to assess how easy it is to dig into the Internet’s seamy underbelly and, from that, gain an appreciation of how things can go very wrong, very fast, if you aren’t careful and use some common sense.
(Of course, there is the argument about selecting the neighbourhoods you visit and most of us should have no reason to visit these sites. But my journalistic curiosity allows me to go into sometimes dangerous places, though with a heightened sense of caution.)
The key to the dark web is the Tor Browser and Bitcoin, which allow you to transact your affairs without risk of tracing. When you use the illicit resources, guides advise you to set up a VPN (Virtual Private Network) account and store the Tor browser and relevant files on a separate portable flash drive rather than your own computer. The obvious issue is, if you are playing in the underbelly, you don’t want authorities to have a way to link you to the seamy side of the internet.
The guide site I discovered with a Google search apparently had been associated with one of the questionable dark web markets, and the owner had closed the marketplace, but left the guide intact. He recommended users work with the AlphaBay Market instead.
Well, that won’t work today, after AlphaBay’s Canadian owner was caught by authorities in his Thai home after investigators tracked his identity through some sloppy errors earlier in his online career. Alexandre Cazes reportedly amassed millions of dollars before his arrest on July 5. He was found dead in jail on July 12 (suspected suicide).
The guide site listed two other dark web sites. The first I visited through Tor said it had been hacked and all of the Bitcoin in the accounts had been stolen. (Honor among thieves, no.) The second site, however was quite active, it seems, and it had quite a collection of questionable offers.
(The dark web sites are accessible only through Tor; I have decided not to directly link the guide site here as I don’t think it right to provide connections to illegal activities from this blog, but I didn’t do anything questionable to gain access; I simply selected some keywords on Google and found it.)
The story here is disturbing, but of course demonstrates the potential of the Internet for evil as well as good. I gained access to the evil places within 15 minutes; it probably would have taken a while longer and some modest fees to set up the VPN account and other security measures.