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August 12, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Trollin’ in the Deep

In his opus The Grim Grotto, author Lemony Snicket offers the following nugget of wisdom: “the world is a wicked place”. According to the same author, there are menacing “horrors” out there that are scarcely possible to conceive. This is, unfortunately, true of the world in which we dwell. It is also true of the e-world; beneath the friendly face of the ‘surface web’ lies the online equivalent of a shady opium den or black market. Here, all manner of illicit material—whether it’s the comparatively innocuous (marijuana), fraudulent (counterfeit American dolla dolla billz) or downright repugnant (child pornography) is commoditised, bought, sold, traded, shared, disseminated. Welcome to a place where depravity can run amok, completely unchecked. This is a guide to the ‘Deep Web’.

UNDERWORLD

It’s a little-known fact that every time you open Google Chrome (I hope, although Firefox is an acceptable substitute) and type whatever it is you type into the Google search engine, you’re accessing a resource that only indexes about three per cent of the internet in its entirety. The sites you access daily (Facebook, Twitter, Gawker, Tumblr, 4chan if you’re a misogynist) comprise what is known as the surface web; websites which are easily available, indexed by search engines. So what kinds of things make up the other 97 per cent—the Deep Web?

Most of this 97 per cent is utterly inaccessible—dedicated to private email accounts and the transactions therein, secure VPN or LAN connections, websites that are no longer accessible through conventional means but which remain (on the ‘dark internet’, if getting technical is your jam), and the like. A very small amount of this Deep Web is made up of pages accessible on the mainstream internet that request not to be indexed by search engines. A miniscule part of it is dedicated to the unfathomable and user-unfriendly depths of the I2P, Freenet and darknet networks. The most commonly utilised resource used in accessing the Deep Web, however, is the Tor network. Such is Tor’s ubiquity (in underground circles at least) that the terms ‘Deep Web’ and ‘Tor’ are often used interchangeably, in much the same way that ‘vagina’ has come to encompass ‘vulva’ as well. Right. Let’s take a deep breath, perhaps a long swig if you have a beverage handy. Perplexed? Awash in feelings of doubt? Mildly discomfited? Scare-crying? Fear not: some handy elucidation is on its way.

Tor is an online browser that was originally conceived for the US Navy in order to ensure that intel could be suitably encrypted and communicated anonymously. Since its inception, however, it has sustained a broad audience and adopted a new policy of anonymity that extends to all users. It works by directing (or ‘pinging’) your request through a relay point of random IPs spread across the world, thereby concealing your IP among the mass of connections. Helpfully, it manages to disguise searches from the beady eyes of internet service providers too—all they see is you connecting to a server that functions as a dummy. Want to check your notifications on the Uni library computers between 10 am and 2 pm? Tor’s here! Don’t want your web searches on any record? Look no further—Tor automatically deletes your history as well! Want to get on .onion pages? On Tor, you can. What are .onion pages? Well. ‘Onions’ are web pages that require layered encryption to access (hence the ‘onion’ symbolism). When Tor pings your IP around the globe, it encrypts it as it goes to concrete its users’ anonymity. The upshot of this is that Tor can be used to access web pages that cannot be reached on any other browsers. But even once you’re on Tor, how are you supposed to find these onions?

THE HIDDEN WIKI

…oh.

The ‘Hidden Wiki’, modelled on the template of Wikipedia like an evil twin, is the thriving hub of the Tor network, a place where all its citizens—well, not congregate, exactly—but at least where the majority of them frequent. Its function is twofold. It offers a vast collection of .onion links, handily grouped into categories (“hacking”, “blogs”, “adult/erotica” etc.), as well as encyclopaedic articles pertaining to matters of the Deep Web. As with horcruxes in Harry Potter, this article will offer the reader neither guidance nor instruction as to how to get there. It will, however, offer information and guide you through some of the treacherous waters. If the inquisitive/foolhardy among you do manage to get on, however, I must insist that you be VERY careful where you click; The Hidden Wiki is a hotbed for hackers and malicious coders; there is an (admittedly minute) chance of getting caught and arrested; there are some things, too, that cannot be undone, or unseen. Consider yourself suitably warned.

Though the Hidden Wiki’s reputation as a seedy underbelly is perhaps slightly exaggerated (but more on that later), there are some stomach-churning, outright illegal links on offer. There are conspiratorial tirades directed against various social institutions, usually the government. The majority of these allude to The Matrix, and their furious disregard for grammar, syntax and (more’s the pity) citations lead me to suspect that their authors are not the most reliable ship-hands on the vessel of mental health. There are e-book-sharing websites that between them have terabytes of pirated books. There are music-sharing websites with a focus on obscure genres like noise and modern classical (this isn’t the mainstream internet, after all). There are discussion boards and chans with a deep web twist. Very little to no censorship is evident, but with this comes tighter-knit communities and a haven for people whose interests are more esoteric pursuits (there is a noise-sharethread on one board, for example, that I am extraordinarily indebted to). There are hacking communities and resources. There is a comprehensive amount of WikiLeaks, many of which have yet to debut on the surface net.

There are also a diverse array of services available. Should you wish to hire an assassin, you have multiple options to choose from. You can buy forged banknotes in bulk. You can pay ‘Tor University’ to write essays for you—including postgraduate theses and dissertations (with prices adjusted accordingly). You could gaze upon the works of some medical students (“we go where few dare”) who perform macabre human experiments on unsuspecting patients. You can find .onions devoted to redacted court documents, videos and documents about unethical psychological experiments performed before the committee of ethics was a twinkle in its mother’s eye. If you are so inclined, you can purchase drugs from ‘Silk Road’—it offers anything from marijuana to meth, opiates to ekkies. Should you harbour any happy fantasies that the pages are elaborate jokes and imaginations, there is an .onion dedicated to reviews of the services these web pages provide. On an .onion offering forged American dollars: “very satisfied with product, though it took 17 days to reach me.”

If you feel concerned, you can take some comfort in the fact that the authorities know that Tor exists and almost certainly monitor the activities that go on. Their valiant quest is impeded somewhat by the form of currency transactions on the Deep Web use: the dreaded and dreadful bitcoin. I won’t go into the algorithmic machinations of the online currency here (mostly because I don’t understand them, tbh), but suffice to say that it offers its users anonymity in their transactions and a complete lack of a paper trail, which I assume offsets the fluctuating exchange rates the currency is renowned for. Moreover, those heavily involved in the illicit trades keep to their own and are enormously suspicious (paranoia and law-breaking go hand-in-hand)—under the veil of concealment offered by the internet, they can be next-to-impossible to infiltrate.

The most harrowing .onions are the pornographic-themed ones. As one might imagine, these .onions offer visual stimulation banned in a lot of countries: beastiality, necrophilia, non-consensual, Hard BDSM, piss-play, scat-play, and combinations thereof (and I know that the latter three are not like the others; it’s a long story involving archaic laws). The category that gets under my skin the most is the one that promises ‘Underage’, delineated into two categories—‘jailbait’ (teens) and ‘hard candy’ (younger). Disturbingly, the creator of one of these sites did a Q&A for Reddit where he wasn’t entirely condemned. The very same site even has its own Wikipedia article, such is its infamy, and stores 1.4 million photos that get shared among the sites 15,000-strong userbase.

DISPELLING THE MYTHS

This being the case, it’s not hard to understand why the Deep Web is pigeonholed as a den of vice and iniquity and—let’s not beat around the bush—evil. As such, there is a misconception that all the people using it are salacious and nefarious individuals in it for the drugz and the (hard) candy. This isn’t actually the case. Tor is a godsend for political dissidents who have no way of communicating outside their country due to harsh political restrictions in place (think Iran, Egypt); there are forums for them to communicate with Western journalists and each other. Tor also offers ‘Tor Mail’, an email service that offers users—you guessed it—complete anonymity (useful for anonymous tips and, again, political dissidents). There are whistleblowing forums that are dedicated to the public good (one of which Edward Snowden used when he leaked PRISM documents). The communities, as mentioned before, are tight-knit and often engage in (*gasp*) intelligent discourse—there are boards for those interested in politics, philosophy, literature. While I’m at it, I might as well debunk a couple more insidious myths. The idea that Tor is a launching point for forays into an even ‘deeper web’ (often called ‘Mariana’s Web’, as in ‘Mariana’s Trench’) is infelicitous. Tor’s as far as it goes, baby, unless you’ve got the hacking know-how-can-do. Finally, and I cannot stress this enough, Tor is not lightning-fast. Going through all those relays takes time, man. The price you pay for freedom is dial-up speed connections. No one’s got it all.

ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END

Fortuitously (well, for me), the Deep Web made its way into the limelight while I was writing this very article. This is strictly speculation at this stage, but allegedly the FBI seized some servers owned by ‘Freedom Hosting’—the hosting service that many .onions use, some of which hosted child pornography, others of which were above-board (Tor Mail is the most unfair casualty). An InScript Java code was then inserted into the pages to trace back the IP addresses of those unaware that JavaScript can be used to unmask you. The attack was, however, generic, meaning that even those on Tor who were accessing legal material will be implicated in a child-pornography ring. For those who had not configured Tor correctly, it was no longer a safe place.

The furore on Tor was immediate and ferocious. There was talk of people physically destroying hard drives and ‘going underground’ for a couple of months. One spectacularly misinformed comment on a Tor news site (think the comments on Stuff.co.nz but even worse) insisted that taking away their child porn contravened their rights to “freedom of speech” (?!). In a considerably more rational criticism, many bloggers are taking issue with the heavy-handedness of the FBI’s (alleged) approach. One of my fellow Salient contributors analogised that it was like “banning cars to stop car bombings”. On the other hand, if the raids manage to prevent the dissemination of child porn, or catch perpetrators of abuse on children and rescue the children involved, wouldn’t the collateral damage be worthwhile?

AMBIGUITY

That’s where I leave you; you have to make your own call on that one. But this conundrum hinges on a problem that is much broader in scope. Tor is indirectly responsible for a tremendous amount of ill—you could accuse it of facilitating the drug trade and the child-porn trade and it would be hard-pressed to respond. But it is also indirectly responsible for social justice, transparency, and stands for something that has been largely lost in the digital age—anonymity and the liberty that accompanies it. Forgive me for offering a cliché, but it really is a double-edged sword. I don’t have any answers. I do, however, have another Lemony Snicket quote that may prove valuable: “People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.” The Deep Web, for better or worse, is the very same.

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