What is the Dark Web, or Dark Net? What is the Deep Web?
Many parents are not familiar with these terms, but they should learn about them…before their children do.
by Matt Cates
Criminals live on the bleeding edge of technology. It’s how they stay ahead, how they keep the cops scrambling. For their most illicit endeavors, they operate in an online virtual environment, engaging in an encyclopedic range of horrors: modern slave commerce, selling harvested human organs and other body parts on the Red Market, trading child pornography, sharing rape, murder, and torture films. Assassins market their lethal services; identity thieves sell privacy data wholesale. Hackers plot their next big score. Arms dealers offer weapons of murder to anyone who can pay. Synthetic street drugs advertise they can turn your victims into zombies… Meanwhile, the rest of the world goes about its business, either unaware or impotent to affect any noticeable change, for in this online bazaar of sins, shops may open and close in the blink of an eye.
Little Alice plays with her kittens, Kitty and Snowdrop. She’s bored, and soon becomes exceedingly curious (as children generally do) about an ordinary mirror above the fireplace mantle. Tenaciously she climbs up to poke the flat, smooth surface with a tiny finger…and thus inadvertently and somewhat naively enters into another world, one which lives and breathes merely a heartbeat away, unseen to the average passerby. It’s a world very unlike Alice’s, but every bit as real. Yes there it is, beyond belief yet all-too-easily accessible to anyone who happens to stumble Through the Looking Glass.
And like Alice, our own children are vulnerable to stumbling…right into that online lair of criminality known as the “Dark Web.”
The sophisticated digital marketplace of criminals commonly called the “Dark Web” is essentially a vast collection of encrypted websites. This web of illegal sites is able to hide the electronic identities of the sites’ respective servers and “spoof” the locations of origin. In other words, police have a difficult time tracking which countries the servers are even located in, much less figuring out who is running them. To make matters worse, the sites are only accessible to customers who are also using the same encryption software (for example Tor or I2P, or search engines like Grams). Thus, both ends—client and server—are masked, hidden from the global law enforcement agencies who try desperately to close them down.
Perhaps this sounds complicated; perhaps you, as a parent, believe your own little ones would never be able to accidently fall into this alternate world of hackers, thieves, and gun runners.
You’d be wrong. Here’s why:
For starters, remember that, like Alice, children are infinitely curious. Their minds are designed to puzzle out problems, to determine solutions and workarounds for nearly any riddle which intrigues them. Technology is the perfect platform for young minds to wander in, and most kids these days grow up with extremely advanced hardware and software right in their laps. So unless you’re a Luddite who is totally anti-tech, chances are your child either has a tablet, smartphone, laptop, game system, or some other Internet-connected device…and they know how to use it. At some point in their online lives, they’re going to come across this concept of a “secret Internet,” of a hidden world lying under the flat, smooth, mirror-like screen beneath their fingertips.
And at some point, they’re going to try to access it.
What is Tor Project?
But how will they? you ask. They don’t know what Tor or I2P are. They don’t have all those encryption tools. Do they? If they know how to type in a URL, they can easily download the applicable tools from http://www.torproject.org. I just downloaded the Tor browser onto my laptop; the file is about 47MB in size. It only took one click. Instructions telling them where to go and what to do are abundant on YouTube…a favorite online hangout for my own kids. Maybe yours as well?
Another simple tool is Tails, an operating system within itself which routes through Tor, and is run via a USB drive. As Tails claims, it ‘circumvents censorship’ and ‘leaves no trace on your computer.’ https://tails.boum.org/
Okay, finding the software is easy. So easy a child could do it, which is our point here. But of course, due to the hidden nature of the Dark Web sites, a general search in a web browser isn’t going to pull them up. You’d need a list of the exact link names. These, too, are readily found, even on commonly used social media websites like Reddit (/r/DarkNetMarkets/). And remember those YouTube instructional vids? Many of those also contain links in the comments, or even within the video itself.
As software engineer Kyle Terry pointed out in a TED talk on Darknets, and in reference to the Tor browser: “Nobody’s gonna use this stuff if it’s hard.” Meaning even a child can use it! His TED video is here:
Some of this viral sharing of Dark Web access tools is due to kids being kids, not realizing they may be playing with fire. In some cases, however, the intent may be far more malevolent. It’s no secret online predators target children, posing as friends, creating fake profiles to solicit and entice unwary victims into a spiraling net. Once both predator and prey are nestled in the Dark Web their communications become completely untraceable.
What is the Deep Web?
Let’s add a term to our vocabulary regarding illicit online services. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Deep Web,” or seen that graphic of the iceberg with its tip protruding from the water’s surface while the bulk of its mass remains hidden below. That image is often used to portray the Deep Web. The problem is not that it’s inaccurate; but there is a difference between the Dark Web and the Deep Web.
Here’s an analogy, if you remember this from math class—“every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.”
Dark Web sites exist in the Deep Web, however not all Deep Web sites are Dark. Indeed most aren’t. Most are exceedingly dull—academic papers; medical data; company files. The Deep Web basically houses pages and sites which are not running live for the world to see. Perhaps they are works-in-progress, or are archival in nature. Whatever the reason, you may hear the statistic that 90% of the web is in the Deep Web; but it doesn’t therefore mean that 90% of the web is used for illegal activities. The fact is most of the documents held within the non-indexed sites on the Deep Web would be of little interest to most persons.
That said, there’s no shortage of Dark Web sites because there’s no shortage of people wanting to engage in criminal activities. Children are not immune to the allure of being able to “buy” anything you want. Many consider it a game. But how is this game paid for? Clearly anyone wanting to partake in the dubious services offered within the Dark Web would be a fool to enter their credit card information. That is one reason for the rise of Bitcoin, the online currency of choice for such transactions. Just like “coins” in many video games and game apps designed for children, Bitcoin is all digital. It’s also anonymous and untraceable. It’s never printed, and remains electronic through its eternal lifespan (Interesting trivia: half of the entirety of the Bitcoin economy is already in use, with 12,446,725 in existence; the upper limit of allowable Bitcoins is 21 million, after which no more may ever be used). Purchasing them does not even require a credit card or Paypal; sellers have gotten creative in offering flexible methods for purchasing coins.
As for vendors, as mentioned, one can find nearly anything. Here’s a random sampling of the offerings of a few “Darknet marketplace” vendors (their Usernames have been removed):
‘Cocaine’, ‘Cannabis’, ‘Stimulants’, ‘Hash’
‘Accounts’, ‘Benzos’ (tranquilizers), ‘IDs & Passports’, ‘SIM Cards’, ‘Fraud’
‘Software’, ‘Erotica’, ‘Dumps’, ‘E-Books’
‘Accounts’, ‘Documents & Data’, ‘IDs & Passports’, ‘Paypal’
Ed Snowden was a user of Dark Web sites, to disseminate stolen classified government documents related to Intelligence Community practices. Islamic State also uses such sites for their own dealings in arms and slaves. Perhaps the most infamous user of the Dark Web was a hacker known as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” operator(s?) of the expansive (but now defunct?) Silk Road site which sold drugs and dabbled in assassination contracts. Speaking of which…
What is the Assassination Market?
Many young children or even older teens do not make the proper mental connections between their online activities and the real world consequences of their actions. Take, for example, the Assassination Market. Though it does not seem to blatantly advertise the services of hitmen, it does create a legitimate pool of money from gamblers who bet money on who will be murdered next. As the founder of the site claims, his long term hope is to eliminate all politicians, and to create such an environment of fear that no one will ever run for office. “I believe it will change the world for the better,” the founder reportedly stated. Children reading this simple page may consider it a game to add a person’s name of this list, or to place a bet on who will be killed. The cognitive disconnect between such actions and their consequences is both ethical and legal. Not only is it morally wrong to participate in such pools, but clearly betters can land in a world of legal troubles.
This is only a short introduction to the Dark Net and the dangers it presents to our youth. Consider one last analogy—the Marianas Trench. It’s the deepest part of the world’s oceanic body, and from it rises a Micronesian island chain. Sit on any beach on any of these tiny tropical islands and you’d never fathom how deep the blue water in front of you truly is. But any seasoned swimmer learns to respect the water and the dangers present within it. The web is no different; it’s far deeper than one could imagine, and the creatures which lurk within far more hideous than any within the Marianas Trench.
Don’t let your little loved ones go swimming unawares. Educate yourself so you can teach them.
Matt Cates is a retired government clone and the author of ‘Haveck: The First Transhuman,’ and ‘Why Are You Still Working: A Practical (and Philosophical) Guide to Mega Early Retirement.’ Follow him on Amazon’s Author Page!