By Ryan Ong
Have you ever wondered how people in repressive regimes manage to get video footage and messages out onto the Internet? Or how disillusioned ISIS fighters talk to journalists about wanting to go home?
Obviously, using Gmail and Facebook is out, because that sort of activity will lead to decapitation or death by firing squad. Instead, they post them on what is known as the “deep web’’, where only people with the tools and the know-how can find them.
I was introduced to the deep web two years ago after asking someone how he got hold of an authentic designer overcoat at a cut-rate price. He told me how factories always produce surplus material to replace defects but aren’t allowed to sell the surplus. Sometimes, they are given to employees who set up a sideline selling them on the deep web.
He told me how to get there, and the place feels like the weirdest and the most dangerous place anyone can be. I was totally stunned.
Besides allowing people to lament or protest political issues, the deep web doubles as what is possibly the biggest black market in the world, where arms dealers, drug dealers, human traffickers, corporate and government infiltrators are known to peddle their wares.
It is a quiet war zone, where smugglers and law enforcement officers duke it out on a daily basis. Think 1950s Chicago or Hong Kong, except in digital form. It is the sort of place where you should never try ripping off a trader, because you could be picking a fight with a professional hacker – and suddenly discover your email is sending out child pornography. Oh, and also your bank account has been frozen. Stick to Carousell, all you’ll get is a negative review.
Ross Ulbricht, founder of Silk Road (the biggest black market for drugs in the deep web and maybe the world), recently got a life sentence without parole.
Where you are right now, on The Middle Ground website, is just the surface web and the furthest that most Internet users go. This is the world of YouTube, Facebook, blog shops, etc. Places that almost anyone can access.
Everything on the surface web is indexed. In other words, you can find all the “surface” sites via Google, Yahoo, etc. Below that is the Bergie web, a thin layer where the surface web begins to descend into the deep web. Sites on the Bergie web are indexed, but they also contain instructions on how to descend into the deep web. The origins of the name, like most things on the Internet, are murky.
The deep web is the basement; highly closed, private affairs. To get to them, you need to know the correct address, which means they are in some ways “invite only”. For that you need a particular kind of router. If you’re wondering why the basement even exists, it was originally a tool for the US military to keep their secrets. Over time, it became a tool for journalists, whistle-blowers, political victims, etc. who need to protect themselves and their families. What followed were grey area goods, and then the inevitable black market goods.
(There’s an even deeper basement, the Marianas web, named after the Marianas trench, the deepest part of the world. This is where you start getting into Intranets, classified data, and other things that can actually get you hunted down and arrested as a spy. James Bond territory.)
Anyway, armed with router and anonymity, I took a dive.
Here’s what I found:
This article is to inform you of the deep web’s existence. It is not an encouragement for you to conduct business on it, or make any kind of transaction on it.
A large number of sites are scams. Even more are set up by law enforcement agencies to entrap criminals. By signing up for them, or making transactions on them, you may be incriminating yourself.
Do not buy or sell anything if you insist on visiting the deep web, and never register or give your details to any site.
- There are suspiciously cheap electronics for sale
I don’t want to venture a guess as to where these come from – either right out of a factory in China, or from a lost shipment. Whatever the case, they are suspiciously cheap, and their source cannot be traced.
Bitcoin is the cryptocurrency of choice on the deep web. They are chosen because they’re harder – though not impossible – to trace. Whoever buys and sells on the deep web generally don’t want their credit card numbers being sniffed ot this time of writing, 1 Bitcoin is worth about $340. So yes, those phones are very cheap (most are about $600, compared to $988 from retail stores).
- People use the deep web as a confessional
As a Catholic, I’ve always wondered at the power of confessions. The deep web confirms that. There are sites where you can – anonymously – confess to the terrible things you’ve done. And people will post comments, and give you advice on the right kind of penance.
The odd thing is that these sites are only half-joking. Some comments and posts are obviously trolls, or just people having a laugh. But there are just as many serious cries for help (drug addicts who are feeling suicidal, gangsters confessing to their crimes).
Oh, a big hint for activists out there: some employees confess the terrible things they’ve done in the name of their company’s greed.
- Get free IT help and lessons
Not only do the hackers and security professionals on the deep web know about your malware / virus, some of them probably even helped code it. And if you can tolerate slews of vulgarities, smart-assery, and the risk of trolls trying to make your problem worse, it’s a good venue of last resort to find help.
Beyond the forums and chats, there are lots of obscure instructional sites that get very detailed and specific.
If you’re into this stuff, and you can handle the depth of the discussions here, the deep web is a goldmine of useful information. In general, a 50-50 rule applies: half the people you meet on the deep web will be friendly geniuses, and the other half will be rabid psychopaths.
- Learn Black Magic
You think I’m joking, but there are people who take the whole “occult” thing seriously. I guess it also helps to buy the books and skulls as props, if you have a 1980s themed metal band.
It’s like Amazon.com for bomohs.
- Buy your way to social media fame
I’m sure it’s absolutely not true that a lot of YouTubers or bloggers bought their way to higher rankings. There’s no way those overnight stars would have gone on the deep web and bought, say, instructions on how to exploit social media loopholes right?
While most of these are scams, you can bet that some of them – usually short lived sales that are not around for long – are probably real. Hang around on deep web forums long enough, and you’ll also notice some of the people posting these exploits seem to work for Facebook, YouTube, etc.
We’re Just Scratching the Surface
The deep web offers far more, which I frankly don’t dare to post. Drugs, firearms, and corporate / government espionage also makes its way into the deep web.
Many companies, in fact, constantly trawl onion sites for sold lists of user accounts, compromised credit card numbers, stolen video game keys, etc. This allows them to (hopefully) respond quickly when they realise a hacker has gotten into their database, and is selling the information.
The deep web is the wild west of the Internet – a battleground best avoided except by the savvy, criminal, or desperate. If you’re curious and brave enough to peek, well…you’ve been warned.
Hell Pit or Help It?
What exactly do we do with the deep web?
Authorities are mostly scratching their heads about it. It’s not easy to regulate, because it’s anonymous. It’s not exactly evil, because behind the black market abuse, the deep web is a powerful tool for whistle-blowers and the free exchange of information.
In many ways, the polarised opinions on the deep web are a microcosm of the global debate on the nature of freedom, and the extent to which it should be taken. There are conservatives who fear the deep web, and cannot sleep at night even knowing it exists. Then there are the liberals, who consider it an important check against totalitarian control.
And finally, we have the moderates in the middle ground, who are trying to figure out how to get the best of it without letting it get out of hand.
Featured Photo by Shawn Danker.