I’m sure by now that everyone has heard of the dark web commonly known as the epicenter of illegal online activity, a vast secret cyber underworld, it’s called the dark web and people aren’t using it to buy shoes, they’re buying drugs weapons anything you can imagine!

The subterranean realm is sinister and untraceable with consequences that can be deadly, people may also be familiar with the Silk Road or at least its history. The online marketplace where you could buy narcotics with absolute anonymity, but the dark web is part of something much bigger, the Deep Web which makes up 90% of the entire web through our internet searches in our daily lives, we only see a tip of the iceberg. How did this all start?

For starters let’s take a look at some basics, the web can be defined into three categories. First there’s the surface web, and that’s everything that’s open and available, basically everything that can be found is through a Google search. Following this is the Deep Web, this is the portion of the Internet that’s hidden from conventional search engines, and it contains unindexed websites. You can find personal information like your payroll and medical records or a corporation’s private data, and finally there’s the dark web. Here sites are intentionally hidden from search engines sites, and the dark web can only be accessed through special browsers which use masked IP addresses to hide the identity of the visitors.

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So where did this dark web come from? In 1969 a couple of university students sent the world’s first computers to compete a message. It was sent on ARPANET, an early ancestor to the Internet. The concept of connecting computers together was a radical idea at the time and at certain motions the progression to the modern Internet.

But ever since there has been the internet, or any form of internet people have used it for illegal online activity. In fact, one of the first-ever ecommerce transactions was a drug deal in the year 1970, it was done between two students at MIT and Stanford. In the 1980s people also attempted to create data havens in small countries with relaxed laws. These early examples were nowhere near as sophisticated as the modern dark web, however they illustrate the point that they have always been people who wanted to use the web to escape the eyes of the authorities, or everyone’s eyes for that matter.

In the mid-1990s things started to get interesting, a technology called tor was created. Tor stands for “The Onion Router” and is a browser which allows users to exchange information anonymously online. Peer-To-Peer networks like Tor are the backbone of the dark web. For the dark web to exist it needs anonymity. Tor manages this by hiding the identity of the user by bouncing the connection through three different servers around the world adding a layer of encryption each time hence the name onion.

It would be logical to assume that Tor was invented by a group of anti-establishment coders and criminals trying to evade government control. Looking at the illegal activity of the dark web this makes sense, however quiet paradoxically Tor was invented by the US Naval Research Laboratory to allow intelligence personnel to transfer information securely. Another agency of the US Department of Defense called DARPA further developed Tor and in 2002 they made it available to the public.

To this very day Tor is still funded in part by the US government, but why would the US government fund and allow the general public to access Tor? Well the idea was to make it difficult for anyone to decipher which information on the dark web was created by intelligence officers. It’s easier to remain anonymous in a sea of anonymous users, simply the more users there are the better it is. It’s important to note that without Tor the darknet would still exist. Tor is simply one dark web browser to which there are many, it’s kind of like if Google Chrome was shut down tomorrow the internet would still exist.

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In 2014 Dr. Gareth Owen provided a breakdown of the sites on the dark web by classification, his research found that drug marketplaces were by far the most common type of site, this was followed by other marketplaces including fraud sites and Bitcoin sites which are mainly used for money laundering.

Ok so let’s take a deeper dive and take an interesting look at the deep and dark web. Firstly it’s huge and its size is growing rapidly, a 2001 study done by the University of California discovered that the dark web had 7.5 petabytes or 7500 gigabytes of information in just two years, this number increased to over 91,000 petabytes today combined.The deep and dark web is over 96% of the entire web, to give you more of an idea of the scale, 60 of the largest deep web sites collectively exceed the size of the entire surface Internet by 40 times. When you do an internet search you’re only searching 0.03 percent of the entire web.

The dark web is such a nefarious place that you can get scams based around murder, in one case people kept falling for an elaborate scam to hire hitmen, a website called “Besser Mafia” claim to offer the toughest Albanian hitman services but in reality it was two Eastern European men tricking people into handing over their money to pay for hit jobs that actually didn’t happen. After getting their initial payment the fraudsters often strung customers along lying to them and making up stories about why the killing hadn’t happened yet. They even started a fake moral panic around the issue, they started up false campaign groups and petitions calling for the Besser Mafia website to be shut down. This is a convoluted effort to make it look legitimate. It said that you can find anything from an AK-47 to rocket launchers on the dark web.

If you look hard enough criminals have also been discovered selling fake degrees certifications and passports. People have also hired hackers to break into university systems just to change their grades, stolen identities up for grabs from the dark web, passwords for individual bank accounts cost around 160 dollars and your full identity about $1,200. On the dark web there’s also a hidden Wikipedia this contains Wikipedia articles that are immune from censorship one of the most infamous sites on the dark web is the marketplace Silk Road, the name comes from an ancient network of trade routes which connected Europe, parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

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The name was borrowed by Ross Albrecht in 2011 when he setup the first Silk Road marketplace under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts. Many things can be purchased with Bitcoin but mostly illicit drugs and fraudulent documentation such as passports being mostly anonymous. Bitcoin among other crypto currencies was instrumental in allowing Silk Road and any anonymous marketplace to run. Ross Ulbricht was arrested in 2013 and charged in a high-profile case with money-laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics and arranging hitmen to murder six people, however he was not prosecuted for the attempted murder charges in October last year.

The FBI swooped in, Ross Ulbricht was sitting at his laptop in the science fiction section of a San Francisco library, but to ensure they got the evidence they wanted the federal agents to grab Albrecht before he had time to shut down his computer. Prosecutors in the case essentially wanted him online and the computer unencrypted. At his arrest he was sentenced to double life in prison plus 40 years without parole in total.

Approximately a hundred and seventy thousand bitcoins were seized by the US government from Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht personal account. At the time this was roughly a hundred million US dollars if sold at the peak of bitcoins price. In 2017 it would be worth approximately 2.8 billion US dollars. Ross Ulbrichthad a staunch libertarian philosophy believing that he was doing an ultimate good for the world. His rules for Silk Road outlined that only products that do not cause harm to innocent people may be listed. He fundamentally believed that he was giving power to the people against the government.

It could be argued that the site reduced violence in society, as Silk Road provided a means to purchase narcotics without the violent nature of cartels, gangs or local drug dealers. Ross Ulbricht is heavy prosecution has caused a stir in the online community, there have been arguments about how much of Silk Road was built by a bridge as he had a limited programming knowledge. Some claim that this was the work of a group, new versions of Silk Road and other drug marketplaces keep reappearing, perhaps as long as there is demand there will always be another form of Silk Road.

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To land the dark web have also been crucial to whistleblowers, The New York Times and other news outlets have opened onion sites to allow for people to anonymously submit information, so the dark web isn’t really a place to surf, it’s a place that allows you to do specific things and people should really know what they’re getting into before accessing it. Many sites need invites and a lot of people provide very specific services, stumbling upon a site by accident may even be a criminal offense. To make things clear it’s definitely recommended that you don’t mess with the dark web, they’ve been reports of people getting strange phone calls after browsing through forums, people’s webcams being hacked and then being put on livestream for all to see, people being followed around in public and being horrified to see photos of themselves while doing their daily activities appear in their computer.

People regard the dark web as an underworld, an illegal and dark place where criminals meet. It’s true there is a lot of this type of activity, but the other argument is that it gives people freedom, it can stop governments from overreaching their boundaries, it can keep people and their ideas safe. The question is how do we stop the parts of the dark web that shouldn’t exist. Right now it seems like an unanswerable question, but people such as Tor staff are working on it in a time where all of our information is on and our identity follows us on every post and search.

Perhaps we needs something like a dark web in order to keep our freedom. So I’ll pass the question off to you. Do you think we need something like a dark web for privacy reasons but on the other hand it just might be the case in the future that intelligence agencies compromised the system without even telling us, it’s an interesting debate.