A computer is browsing the Internet in Chile. A few seconds later, that same computer address is operating in Chicago. A few seconds after that and it’s in Moscow, but it was never really in any of those places to begin with.
This is the yield of the mysterious entity that is TOR (The Onion Router). Developed by the U.S. Navy nearly a decade ago, TOR is an Internet traffic encryption service used to browse the Internet anonymously. It works by bouncing its Internet traffic across multiple TOR servers. It also allows users to access the dark web.
“TOR is incredibly safe, that’s the whole point,” Chris Monteiro, a longtime dark web researcher and moderator of the /deepweb subreddit on Reddit tells Scribe.
“Rather than exposing your I.P. address as well as the other very personal information that [run of the mill] browsers expose to a website, you’re simply accessing the site through onion-routed, encrypted systems,” he says.
The dark web is the portion of the Internet which cannot be seen or accessed by using regular Internet browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox. According to freehaven.net, there are up to 2,000 hidden websites and services bustling on the dark web. A good portion of them are either password protected or heavily encrypted, and with good reason.
“Anyone have pics of snuffed dead kids?” asks a user on a pedophilic forum on the dark web.
“Chloroform and how to make it?” another queries.
“Planning on raping a kid or girl my age…16-year-old here,” says a third.
Pedophilic chat rooms and forums like this are not uncommon on the dark web.
Monsters masquerading as human beings use these message boards to inquire about things like the best way to drug a child and how to hide molesting their child from their spouse. The websites operate securely and call on prospective members to systematically provide child porn from their own library to the administrators for an extended period of time in order to be considered for acceptance.
Although these communities are very real, there are other communities of a different kind that operate with a different motive – to scam other dark web users. Urban legends like Red Rooms – an alleged hidden service on the dark web where users can see and participate in interactive, real-time torture/murder videos – have been circulating the deep web for years and have been proven to be scams, despite media coverage.
“The vast majority are all scams…when you pull them apart, you can see in the code that all there is, is a [photo file] inside of an [internet website coding] file,” says Jonah, a dark web researcher and developer of search engine MoniTOR – which browses the Internet and unveils websites that can only be accessed via the dark Web, through TOR.
Jonah’s real name has been withheld for legal privacy reasons.
Scam artists often ask to be paid for this service, promising that once a user pays, they can watch a modern-day snuff film. For some, it seems like a promising exchange. Others, like Vince Costello, a longtime moderator of the /r/deepweb subreddit on Reddit, can’t stand the thought of snuff films.
“It’s not out of squeamishness,” he says. “I’ve been around the block on the Internet enough times that I can deal with some gore. It’s just the mindset of the viewers [wanting to watch the films] that scared me. I kept thinking to myself, doesn’t this make us as bad as them?”
Perhaps the most intriguing criminal case on the dark web is the rise and fall of the Silk Road, the world’s largest Internet narcotics and restricted goods marketplace and brainchild of Ross Ulbricht, a former research scientist of five years and University of Texas physics graduate.
The website was a contraband haven, where vendors were able to sell things like pure MDMA, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD and GHB, among a feast of 13, 000 other listings of controlled substances. Forged passports and driver’s licenses, as well as weapons like Desert Eagle .44 and Glock 9mm caliber handguns were also sold.
“At its core, Silk Road is a way to get around regulation from the state,” says Ulbricht (while operating under his Silk Road pseudonym, “Dread Pirate Roberts”) in an online Forbes magazine interview. “If [the state says] we can’t buy and sell certain things, we’ll do it anyway and suffer no abuse from them.”
In October 2013, Ulbricht, then 30, was caught and arrested in San Francisco. It is estimated by the FBI that Silk Road did US $1.2 billion worth of business between its opening in January of 2011 and its closure and seizure by the feds in September of 2013. The Bureau also estimates that Ulbricht earned nearly $80 million in commissions.
In February 2015, Ulbricht was found guilty of seven narcotics-related offenses including distributing narcotics, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise and conspiring to commit money laundering.
According to Jonah, shutting down dark Web markets like Silk Road is almost futile, as he predicts that they will continue to increase both in volume and vastness, without struggle.
“They will grow to the point where one will rise above the rest. Then that one will get taken down and another one will take its place,” Jonah tells Scribe.
“People are creatures of habit… When you go to a market and you find that it’s familiar and it works for you, you tend to want to go back there again,” he says.
It was revealed in court that Ulbricht additionally attempted to commission six murders-for-hire over the Internet, and though Ulbricht made tens of millions of dollars from his online enterprise and despite his grisly motives, nobody was ever killed. In the process he was cunningly scammed out of US $650, 000 worth of BitCoin – an encrypted digital currency that isn’t supported by any country’s bank or government – by the would-be Internet hitman.
Documents show that according to evidence found by the FBI, Ulbricht had reached out to a person posing as a contract killer to have a blackmailer killed. Days later, he received a confirmation message, saying that the target had been slain, as well as a photograph of the victim.
To Ulbricht, the hit went according to plan – in reality, the verification photo sent to him was staged by the faux hitman, who reached out to the intended target and warned him that there was a price on his head. Ulbricht had unknowingly been swindled out of US $150,000.
Soon after he received proof of the killing, Ulbricht ordered the murder of the blackmailer’s associate – a Surrey, B.C. resident named Andrew Lawsry – who was rumoured to have stolen millions from Silk Road vendors and customers.
The hitman informed Ulbricht that in order for this person to be executed the way Ulbricht intended, the target’s three roommates would also need a casket to lie in, as the initial target, nor his cohabitants, left their house often. Ulbricht agreed and the hitman laid his plan on Ulbricht.
“I would send four hitters instead of two to make sure there were no fuck ups,” said the hitman in an online conversation log with Ulbricht that was obtained from Ulbricht’s laptop after it was seized by the FBI when he was arrested.
The plan of these four hitters was to spray the room, systematically gunning down everybody and anybody inside. The price for this deed was US $500,000, a sum that Ulbricht was – once again – scammed out of by the murderous charlatan.
A few days later, Ulbricht received a confirmation message from the hitman.
“That problem was dealt with. I’ll try to catch you online to give you details,” said the hitman. “Just wanted to let you know right away so you have one less thing to worry about,” he says.
In the wake of these events, Internet admirers of Ulbricht wish to see the Escobar-like figure freed, creating websites and Twitter accounts to promote the supposed positive traits of Ulbrichts’ case. Some have even gone as far as fundraising money for a legal defense for him. It raised nearly $6,000 in two months.
This twisted let-a-madman-roam-free campaign has been met with heavy resistance by people like Costello.
“Everyone wants to see him freed, like he’s some martyr for the war on drugs. They forget he nearly killed a bunch of people over some freakin’ bitcoins,” Costello tells Scribe.
“Whatever anyone’s stance on drugs and information privacy are, this guy was a bad guy… The drug game is the drug game,” he says.