A SIGNIFICANT court case ended in the US this month with the conviction of Ross Ulbricht on drug trafficking, conspiracy, money laundering and computer hacking, but the usual elements associated with most of those crimes — car chases and backstreet deals — weren’t cited that much in the proceedings.
The clue is in the last charge, computer hacking. Terms such as Dark Wallet and TOR, Silk Road 2.0 and bitcoin, were used to explain Ulbricht’s activities in organising Silk Road, a drug market which existed online.
Silk Road was big business — authorities claimed the site had about 150,000 monthly active users buying psychedelics, cannabis, ecstasy and opiates and other items, earning the website owners up to US$8m a month in drug sales (when the site was closed down).
Don’t bother searching for it, though, because (a) it’s been closed down, and (b) it existed on the Dark Web, a vast, shadowy zone described by one expert as “the wild, wild, West” which may be 400 to 500 times bigger than what we understand by the internet.
When you run a Google search you’re searching perhaps 0.03 per cent of all the websites on the internet; one expert compares such searches to fishing in an ocean, where what’s on the surface is available to you but vast reaches underwater remain unavailable.
If you weren’t aware of the Dark Web, don’t be too concerned. Ray Genoe, from the UCD Centre for Cybersecurity & Cybercrime Investigation (CCI), says: “You’re not going to stumble into it when you’re browsing online for concert tickets or hotel rooms. The whole idea of the Dark Web is that it’s not indexed by Google or the major search engines, and if it’s not indexed by them then there shouldn’t be links from legitimate websites into it.
“It’s a bit like a directory of unlisted phones. You could get lucky punching in numbers, but if you contact Google — just like if you contact directory inquiries — then you won’t get into those websites.”
Where did it come from? The US Navy came up with TOR software in 2002 to protect its communications by using layers and layers of encryption — hence the term TOR, which stands for The Onion Router, with the onion reference underlining the layers involved. Sites using TOR are regarded as being on the Dark Web, where encryption — and the anonymity that results — is a significant attraction.
“The thing about anonymity on the internet is that your traffic is sent out and goes from your house to, say, a server in Russia,” says Genoe.
“It passes through your internet service provider, which keeps a record of your transactions, like a mobile phone operator, so if drugs or arms were delivered to your house the gardaí could contact Eircom or UPC, whoever your provider is, and ask what sites you’d been visiting.
“Now, the Dark Web uses TOR, and what that does is that it encrypts the traffic: the process is the same, your traffic is going to the server in Russia, but this time your ISP has no idea what’s going on because your traffic is encrypted.
“Your traffic may pop up in France or China, so to the server in Russia it looks as though someone in one of those countries is sending the traffic, not you in Ireland. At no point is there a record of what you’ve done.”
The attraction to criminals is obvious. While TOR has been used by whistleblowers and activists against oppressive regimes — the Syrian rebels against Bashar Al-Assad relied on it for communication — it has more negative connotations nowadays.
“TOR wasn’t set up for illegal activity,” says Genoe. “But it certainly facilitates it. It provides anonymity, which facilitates illegal activity. The Dark Web is the wild, wild West — you can get anything from guns, drugs, credit card numbers — anything you want.”
And bitcoin, the virtual currency, is the way criminals pay on the Dark Web.
You can buy your bitcoins in an online exchange — on the ordinary or ‘surface’ internet — then plunge into the Dark Web and spend them without fear of being traced. It’s alleged that the operators of Silk Road added a further refinement, Dark Wallet, which put another level of concealment in place for those buying drugs.
Clearly this is a difficult area to police, but ironically enough, given the levels of technical sophistication involved, it’s understood the US authorities broke the case by simply arresting suspects before they had a chance to shut down and encrypt their laptops.
“There’s a big debate going on in the US as to whether encryption should be legal for the average user,” says Genoe. “I’m not that familiar with the (Silk Road) case but I understand they were using open laptops when the police arrived — if they’d shut those down and encrypted them they’d have been hard to break.
“If you want to search a house in the US you get a warrant and search the house — the debate in the States is centred on whether encryption is legal, because if you have a warrant to search a computer but the computer’s encrypted, then that’s the same as standing at the door of the house and blocking the police from coming in with a warrant to search your house.
“It’s hard to see what can be done about it, though, because big online companies are there to serve customers rather than law enforcement, to offer customers extreme privacy so that if their goods, their phones or laptops, are lost or stolen then the information on those can’t be accessed.”
The obvious question is this — what’s next?
“It’s hard to know,” says Genoe. “The levels of encryption offered by TOR are hard to counteract, and that push against encryption on personal devices in the US is accompanied by a push to get governments and banking sectors to look at bitcoin in terms of bringing it into line, if not banning it outright. You can go into a shop and pay cash for your bitcoin and there’s no traceability, which law enforcement is very unhappy with.
“Regulation of the bitcoin market may be seen in government policies soon but it’s hard to know where the future holds. It’s stumping a lot of people.”
The dark web: the hidden depths
Activists used the dark web to organise the Arab Spring revolution.
Edward Snowden used it to leak files on NSA’s mass surveillance programes.
The portion of the web that is indexed by standard search engines is known as the surface web.
Michael Bergman of BrightPlanet described it thus: “Searching on the Internet today can be compared to dragging a net across the surface of the ocean. While a great deal may be caught in the net, there is still a wealth of information that is deep, and therefore, missed.”
Journalists in heavily-censored countries regularly use the deep web to access information and sources.
Facebook has a version of its site that can be accessed via Tor and so is of particular interest in countries like China and Iran.
False passports can be bought on the dark web with US passports selling for upwards of €700.