Located in shadowy corners of the Internet are chat rooms and online markets where people use special software to stay anonymous and cover their digital tracks.
Some of that is innocent and perfectly legal. But increasingly, say law enforcement officials, “Darknet” sites have become havens for shady dealers peddling guns, counterfeit currency, stolen credit cards, illegal pharmaceuticals and deadly drugs like fentanyl.
The Darknet is part of the Deep Web or Invisible Web, sites not reachable using standard search engines. It was little known until Ross William Ulbricht was arrested in 2013 for running a site called Silk Road under the name Dread Pirate Roberts. An FBI investigation revealed about 150,000 anonymous customers made up to $1.2 billion in mostly drug purchases from 4,000 vendors before the original site was taken down.
But Silk Road 2.0 went right back up. The group Digital Citizens Alliance, an online safety advocacy group, documented more than 13,500 drug listings less than a year after the FBI bust.
Using the Internet for illegal activity is not new, but traffic on secretive sites in the deep recesses of the Internet is “growing by leaps and bounds,” said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a University of Dayton law professor. “People like this idea that you can do things anonymously and especially if you want to participate in illegal activities like buying narcotics.”
It’s estimated the Deep Web is 400-500 times larger than the “surface web,” or the indexed sites that most people can access directly.
Darknet purchases are typically made using bitcoin so the transaction can’t be traced back to a buyer or seller, Hoffmeister said.
Bitcoin functions by keeping a “digital wallet” of bitcoins purchased on an exchange. Each party uses a private digital key to approve a transaction, which is then recorded in a ledger. Personal identities are not revealed.
Most Darknet sites can only be accessed anonymously using a browser called The Onion Router, or TOR. The software encrypts data and then bounces communications randomly to a network of more than 7,000 relays scattered around the world.
But TOR also allows political dissidents and whistleblowers to meet on Darknet sites to exchange ideas and reveal information without uncovering their identities, Hoffmeister said.
“Just because you don’t want people to know who you are and trace you, doesn’t mean you have a nefarious purpose,” he said. “You may want to experience different things you may not feel comfortable doing if someone could trace it back to you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an illegal experience.”
But contraband and drugs bring in the most traffic.
Cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine and related products consistently account for 70 percent of all online anonymous marketplace sales, according to a 2015 study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers.
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The Darknet pages look every bit like an ordinary shopping site complete with glowing descriptions and photos of the products along with buyer and seller feedback, Hoffmeister said.
“They have reviews. It’s an online drug market where you can even go there and actually see how people rate the product,” he said. “And like an Airbnb or Yelp review – people who are selling are concerned with their reviews.”