What you need to know about the darknet

The benefits will soon outweigh the downside

(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

Have you ever run across a situation so frustrating that you wished you could hire a “fixer"?

Maybe it has to do with gangs moving into your neighborhood, or the local slumlord not willing to repair a dangerous situation, or a local politician taking bribes, or finding out that your husband is also married to someone else in another state.

My guess is that we’ve all run into problems that are outside of our ability to deal with, and we need help. But the help we need is not the normal kind. We don’t have millions to throw at lawyers and we don’t have the time, patience, or resources to go through official channels.

Well, there may be another option, but it will involve you going over to the dark side… of the Internet.

The darknet, often referred to as the dark web, is the place where less-than-scrupulous people offer less-than-scrupulous solutions.

If you think I’m talking about murder-for-hire, you’re missing the 10,000 other possible intermediary steps involving everything from public shaming, to social media faux pas, fake IRS notices, identity corruption, denial of service attacks, or worst of all, frivolous lawsuits designed to mete out your own form of justice in unusually creative ways.

While this may sound like the latest episode of the TV show Leverage, new toolsets available on the darknet are enabling us to operate far outside traditional recourse with total anonymity.

Whether it’s whistleblowing, dissident protests, news leaks or simple revenge, neither the perpetrator nor the implementer of the service will wish to be identified, but somehow the results justify the extraordinary measures taken.

Welcome to the dark side of the Internet where the grey areas of justice come in far more than 50 shades.

Commonly thought of as a “mafia marketplace” where illegal drugs are bought and sold, and human trafficking, child porn, and contract killings make all the headlines, the dark net is growing in its appeal with far less offensive offerings catering to a more mainstream audience.

Even though this tends to be an experimental playground for the dregs of society who manage to skirt the law with impunity, it’s unleashing some critically important innovations in the process.

The the benefits of the darknet will soon outweigh the downside.

A Little Darknet History

In the 1970s, shortly after the creation of the Internet forerunner, ARPANET was developed by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a number of isolated, secretive networks begin to appear, giving rise to the term “darknet.”

In the 1980s, a series of problems with storing sensitive or illegal photos, videos and data began to surface, causing a number of "data havens" to spring up, the informational equivalent of tax havens in the Caribbean.

As part of the dot com bubble in the late 1990s, Napster spawned a series of peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella, Freenet, and Kazaa, that operated with decentralized data hubs for trade and distribution of copyrighted music and movie files.

TOR, which is an acronym for its original project name, The Onion Routing project, was developed in the mid-1990s by United States Naval Research Laboratory as a way of protecting U.S. intelligence communications online. But it also has another natural constituency, those wanting to browse the darknet.

In 2009 the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto introduced Bitcoin, a form of untraceable cryptocurrency. Unlike previous digital currencies that failed because of security issues with hackers literally copying money, Bitcoin uses of an innovative public accounting ledger, the block chain, to prevent double spending.

In 2011 a popular blog publishes an exposé on Silk Road, a clandestine marketplace that "makes buying and selling illegal drugs as easy as buying used electronics." Silk Road was like Amazon.com, only for crystal meth and LSD, a service available to Tor users with Bitcoin accounts. As a result, traffic to Silk Road surged, and the value of a Bitcoin jumps from around $10 to more than $30 within days.

In 2013 the FBI sets up a sting operation and shuts down Silk Road with the arrest of its founder Ross William Ulbricht. In 2 years, Silk Road had done $1.2 billion in sales. Instantly a number of other sites sprung up to fill the void.

Accessing the Darknet

The darknet is not a place. It’s not like the backroom of some nightclub where you pull back the curtain to reveal a whole different party happening in the background.

In fact it’s not even close to a party. Most of the darknet is comprised of academic resources maintained by universities and contains nothing even remotely sinister.

Accessing the hidden Internet is surprisingly easy. The most popular way to do it is using a service called Tor (or TOR), which stands for 'The Onion Router'.

Since the original Silk Road was unmasked through a bug in a Captcha screen, dozens of Tor alternatives have surfaced like I2P, Tails, Subgraph OS, Cloudnymous, Freenet, Spotflux, Orbot, JonDo, Freepto, Psiphon and Tunnelbear.

In general, it only takes two clicks from the Tor or Tor–alternative site and you’re ready to access the darknet. The Tor browser was originally built on top of the open-source code in Firefox, so the interface is familiar and easy to use.

Search engines for the darknet are different than browsers. The unindexed side of the Deep Web is estimated to be 500 times larger than what is captured by Google’s search engines. Even though specialized deep web search engines can uncover many unindexed sites, nothing is currently able to search it completely.

Deep web search engines include: Ahmia.fi, Deep Web Technologies, TorSearch and Freenet.

Tor web addresses don't look like typical URLs. They are composed of a random-character string followed by .onion. As example, here’s the kind of URL you’ll run into: http://dppmfxaacucguzpc.onion/. This link will take you to a directory of darknet websites if you have Tor installed, but if you don't, it will be completely inaccessible to you.

With Tor, you can find directories, wikis and free-for-all link dumps for anything you may be interested in on the darknet.

Next: Nine crucial darknet predictions.

Categories: Tech, Web Exclusives