Rumour Has It

Eoghan O’Neill sheds light on the Dark Net

I first became aware of the darknet one fateful night after stumbling across a youtube video entitled ‘Red Rooms – Do They Exist?’ The video consisted of a single frame: a suspicious-looking chair, clasps bolted to the arm rests, centered in front of a dank wall streaked in what appeared to be blood. A spooky voice rasped out a dramatic and poorly written story, and yet these amateurish qualities betrayed how interesting the content was. Apparently ‘Red Room’ was a term for websites where users could watch murders streamed live, and could even give their two cents in a chatbox as to what method the murderer should use. I was morbidly fascinated, but I also questioned whether such a website could truly be possible. Surely displaying your crime so publically and in such a novel manner would be a sure way of getting caught in record time, especially considering the surveillance powers available to law enforcement nowadays.

A little further research, and I found that these ‘Red Rooms’ were allegedly able to exist operating under the cloak of the ‘darknet’, a collection of websites dealing in all manner of illegal and nefarious objects and acts, accessible only through the web browser TOR which masks the identity of its users. The Youtube video I watched is emblematic of how the darkweb is portrayed in the media. It is a place populated with murderers, assassins, illicit arms dealers, and jihadis all commingling in some sort of nefarious ecosystem, potentially life-threatening to anyone who logs on. Inevitably, the darkweb has garnered an increasing amount of attention. Videos such as the one that first informed me of its existence are abundant: some garner millions of views.

There are countless articles online and in print about the contemptible activities of darkweb criminals, and such crime has been dramatised on a variety of shows from the amazing House of Cards to the painful CSI: Cyber.

Media portrayals of the darkweb have led to the public being generally misinformed on its actual functioning. Even casual exploration of the topic cracks this mysterious veneer. ‘Red Rooms,’ for one, do not exist. They would be a logistical nightmare to pull off, and even if one did, the international news media would have a field day. You can’t hire assassins either, another common misconception, as any site that offers such services is either a scam or a police sting operation. Furthermore, the small number of sites claiming to be ISIS affiliated funding operations take in next to nothing in donations and are extremely likely to also be scams. This is not to say that the darkweb is a benevolent place however, as it is generally populated with large websites functioning like illicit versions of Amazon where users trade bitcoins for guns, drugs and stolen credit card information. It is also home to a number of paedophile forums where users trade videos and images.

Saying that, what nobody seems to mention is the existence of a large number of forums dedicated to freedom of speech where users discuss a variety of completely benign topics. The idea that using the darkweb automatically suggests a danger to one’s, or someone else’s, life is unfounded, and in fact it is generally only illegal to use in more authoritarian countries where the government fears individual privacy.

The media mischaracterises the darkweb by focusing on outlandish rumours, which makes little sense to me when you look into some of the very real, and endlessly fascinating events happening there. Take July 4th of 2016 for example, where the largest ever darkweb marketplace, Alphabay – 10 times bigger than the more famous Silk Road marketplace, with 200,000 users and 40,000 sellers trading mostly in drugs – was taken down by the FBI. Such takedowns happen every once in a while, and this didn’t come as a shock to users who moved to the next biggest marketplace Hansa which saw an eightfold increase in its user-base.

Little did these users know but Hansa at the time was in the control of the Dutch police who had quietly taken over its servers and copied the entire websites code a couple of weeks previous changing it ever so slightly so they could collect data. As a result of this the police obtained the names and addresses of 10,000 users which were subsequently distributed to law enforcement agencies worldwide.

At the same time as all of this the mastermind behind Alphabay was arrested in Thailand. Alexander Cazes was a 25 year old Canadian national who from a young age had shown proficiency in computers. His family described him as a genius, and were apparently totally unaware of his illegal activities. His father said in one interview that he had never drank or smoked a cigarette. It’s particularly jarring then to see pictures of this awkward tech-geek in an ill-fitting suit posing beside huge million dollar cars and in front of multiple luxury properties. It took a joint-effort of law enforcement across five countries to find Alex, who awaiting extradition to America for prosecution allegedly took his own life. His family disputes that he would do this however with the events surrounding his death unclear. The FBI in their official statement on the matter stated that he ‘apparently’ killed himself. Cazes’ demise is strikingly similar to a previous darkweb market takedown in October of 2013 where the owner of that site Ross Ulbricht, known online as ‘Dread Pirate Roberts,’ was sentenced to life in prison. Ulbricht was also an unassuming tech-wiz and both were caught due to their own mistakes. Ulbricht tried using one of those dubious assassination websites I previously mentioned, the operator of which turned out to be a cop. On top of this he stupidly made thinly veiled references to running the Silk Road on his Linkedin account. In both cases then it was human ineptitude, and not the technology, that finally allowed the police to catch these two men.

I sent messages out to a large number of darkweb market users on the reddit forum r/darknetmarkets (as a side note, this is one of the strangest places on the internet – check it out if you want to see people nonchalantly review their recent ketamine purchases) and none of them expressed any fear of being caught or desire to stop. What’s even more interesting, though, is that aside from a certain level of paranoia (none of them would let me quote them or their usernames despite their anonymity) they were all quite polite people who were eager to dispel any understanding of them as hardened criminals. Most users in fact said they came to the darkweb as it was safer than sourcing drugs on the street, and the inclusion of ratings on the various marketplaces allowed them to be sure they were getting a safe product. My journey this deep into the darkweb has been full of surprises, but as time passes I believe the most interesting thing I’ve learned is that looking beyond all the international intrigue and crime is that, for the most part, your average darknet user is pretty normal. On free speech forums, and in chatrooms where citizens of totalitarian countries can converse freely, everyone is polite and eager to chat – and whatever your views on drug use, I can only say the same thing from the illicit consumers I’ve conversed with. Certainly countless times in your life you’ve passed such an individual in the street. They’re all around us. Like Vampires, perhaps. Or more likely, just like any other person.