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Strange cyber world where no authority can dictate terms

August 12, 2014 09:15 IST

Strange cyber world where no authority can dictate terms

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Ashish Sharma

Running beneath the World Wide Web of Facebook, Google and YouTube, the Deep Web is like a vast, dark ocean. 

Atheist666 is 38, single, and based in Seattle, Washington. He is going through a wilderness phase in his life, which has made him a drug vendor on hidden online marketplaces.

"Right now I'm doing this as I try to steer my life out of its current stasis," says Atheist666 (a Net pseudonym), who studied economics, comparative religion and literature at university. "Maybe someday I'll figure out what I want to do when I grow up."

Till then he intends to be a part of a growing community of underground entrepreneurs based out of the Deep Web.

Imagine a space where everything is available to you. No authority can dictate what you can or cannot purchase or what information can be shared. A place where there is unlimited freedom.

Technology allows such a place to exist. It's called the Deep Web or Darknet or Hidden Web. Running beneath the World Wide Web of Facebook, Google and YouTube, the Deep Web is like a vast, dark ocean.

The web, in comparison, is like a pond. Every time you sink into the Deep Web, this world fades, and is replaced by one far more terrible and strange. One can deal in drugs, weapons, contract a killer, hire a hacker or meet jihadists here, all completely untraced.

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Image: Growing community of underground entrepreneurs based out of the Deep Web.
Photographs: Reuters

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These entrepreneurs claim to be heirs of Austrian economists such as Ludwig von Mises, in the sense that they hold libertarian economic beliefs and deep scepticism of government intervention, especially in the monetary system.

For example, most of Deep Web's dealings are in the virtual currency, bitcoin. Unlike conventional currencies, bitcoin's integrity is maintained by the computing power of thousands of users, and not by any bank or government.

But the thrust of the Austrian school of economics is the market forces of creative destruction. Although the Deep Web has seen destruction, it is not always due to market forces. Illegal drugs, goods and services are offered by a marketplace platform, which, unlike an inventory-based forum, brings vendors together rather than stocks products. Silk Road, the largest and possibly first of its kind, was one such.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation shut the website, seized its assets, including 26,000 bitcoins, and arrested the alleged owner, 29-year-old Ross Ulbricht, in San Francisco on October 1. Silk Road 2.0 rose in its place, only to announce in February that all bitcoins belonging to users and staff had been stolen in a hack. Another called Project Black Flag closed after its owner fled with the customers' bitcoins.

Users of Sheep Marketplace, too, had their funds stolen, in an incident that has not been proven to be an inside job or otherwise.

Atlantis Market, a competitor to Silk Road, shut for "security reasons". People say the owners fled with the deposits. In the light of these shake-ups, many are now gravitating towards a new order - fresh marketplaces that they feel are more predictable: websites such as Andromeda, Agora, Outlaw and Hydra.

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Image: Most of Deep Web's dealings are in the virtual currency, bitcoin.
Photographs: Reuters

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"The only law here is our law," says Joshua Allen (also a pseudonym), owner of Andromeda. He speaks to me using US National Security Agency-proof Bitmessage. Surfing along the site's supposedly safe corridors gives you a strange out-of-government-reach sensation. The products have photos, descriptions and vendor names. "The only restriction is on the sale of child pornography, all else is allowed."

The sellers are located all over the world, a large portion of them in the US, Canada and Europe.

But even Andromeda has its limits. There are no plutonium-grade weapons up for sale. Contrary to the belief that the Deep Web markets have no restrictions and are dark, these forums seem capable of taking moral decisions.

HeadOfHydra, the chief of marketplace Hydra, says, "Everything except child porn and assassinations or any other service that constitutes doing harm to another is allowed on the site." This effectively means a vendor cannot sell just anything.

Despite restrictions, sellers seem a happy lot. Atheist666 is registered as a vendor on Andromeda.

He says, "If you think of it as a public safety issue, the benefits are clear: no turf battles, bloodshed, meeting people in dark alleys et cetera." Atheist666 seems a seller of some repute.
Andromeda has a reputation-based trading system similar to Amazon's. Atheist666 is especially trusted. Andromeda and Hydra attentively address user concerns.

HeadOfHydra talks of dispute resolution, "If you do not receive the package, you can contact the support team. We will resend/refund based on your vendor's policy and your stats, like total sum spent on the market and refund rate."

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Image: Sellers are located all over the world.
Photographs: Reuters

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What makes all this possible is anonymity technology called Tor.

Moritz Bartl, founder, Torservers.net, wrote in from a Tor developer meeting in Paris: "Tor is free software developed with the help of researchers from universities. By redirecting your traffic through a network of computers that share their Internet connection with all Tor users, it hides who you are communicating with, and when. Since you are not connecting directly with the destination, it is also useful to circumvent local network restrictions and reach destinations that would otherwise be blocked. It also offers ways to transform outgoing data into something that looks innocent to get around more sophisticated filtering."

According to Bartl, Tor consists of two parts. One is the software (Tor browser) that you can download for free. The other is the Tor network (part of the Deep Web) that can be accessed only through the Tor browser. All sites on the network have the .onion suffix.

Since normal search engines cannot operate in this space, Grams, a special engine, lets you find sites selling drugs, guns, stolen credit card numbers, counterfeit cash and fake IDs - sites that previously could only be found by users who knew the exact address. Bartl goes on to explain his outfit's role. 

"Torservers.net is a network of non-profit organisations formed by experts who run Tor relays. This means that people who want to help make the Tor network faster and better, but don't have the skills or interest in doing it, can donate, and their donations will be turned into Tor bandwidth available for all users."

Torservers.net, he adds, operates a large number of Tor bridges - entry points into the Tor network that are hard to enumerate and are only handed out in small numbers. For all that his organisation does, Bartl knows every action is closely monitored. "The National Security Agency slides on Tor provided by fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden mention an analysis of Torservers.net."

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Image: Grams, a special engine, lets you find sites selling drugs, guns, stolen credit card numbers, counterfeit cash and fake IDs.
Photographs: Reuters

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Bartl is not alone in this. Giant targets have been painted on many backs. After the arrest of Silk Road's alleged chief, Ulbricht, known on the site as Dread Pirate Roberts, or DPR, last December saw two alleged site moderators being taken into custody.

The successor to DPR, known as DPR 2.0, ran Silk Road 2.0 but imagined FBI coming for him. Paranoid, he reportedly smashed his computer and went on the run. He resurfaced but resigned after a short while.

Defcon has been heading Silk Road 2.0 since then. In February, under him, the site saw all of its bitcoins stolen in a hack. "I am sweating as I write this," Defcon wrote on the site's forum. "I must utter words all too familiar to this scarred community: we have been hacked."

Many site owners would have given up at this point, and attempted to join another site, or start a new one. Why bother to pay back millions of dollars when you could just disappear?

But Silk Road 2.0 appears to rebuild and repay users' bitcoins. This is a significant development for the Deep Web since till now it had been viewed as a place for those without morals. Defcon wrote on May 27 that 82.09 per cent of all victims of the hack had been fully repaid.

"Very nice surprise when I logged in!" a user called uglypapersbox wrote on the site's forum. "Despite having to wait one week short of two months, I got paid back in full. Bitcoins are in my account."


Photographs: Reuters

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