In 2015, the founder of a website called Silk Road was sentenced to life in prison. This multi-billion dollar black market site was once the first online marketplace for drugs and other contraband, but it remained hidden from ordinary internet users for years because of something called dark web.
This is how the dark side of the Internet really works.
Anatomy of the Internet
If you think of the web like an iceberg, you have the web at the top. It is the internet that you see and use every day and includes all the websites that are indexed by traditional search engines like Google. It’s where you shop on Amazon and listen to music on Spotify.
What’s in the deep web – an anonymous online space that’s only accessible by specific software. Then there is the dark web, which is the part of the deep web that hides your identity and location.
It’s basically just “a bunch of encrypted networks that anonymize people’s Internet use,” said Matthew Swensen, a Department of Homeland Security Special Agent with expertise in cybercrime.
This encrypted network can be easily accessed by anyone. All you need to do is download the darknet software. Swensen says the most popular dark web networks are Tor, I2P, and Freenet, but “Tor is the most popular.”
Tor stands for “onion routing project.” It was developed by the US Navy for the government in the mid-1990s. But it was open-sourced in 2004, and that’s when it went public. Tor is currently the dark web browser that the vast majority of people use to surf anonymously.
To understand how Tor really works, you need to know what happens when you usually search the web. Think of your IP address as an online identity. Any device you use to connect to the internet has one. Each time you visit a website, you can be traced back to your exact location thanks to that IP address.
The Tor browser looks like any other browser, except there’s a lot going on that you don’t see. Instead of your connection request bouncing from origin to its destination, Tor sends your request along a much more roundabout route.
Let’s say you are in New York and you want to search for a website hosted in New Jersey. Instead of connecting you directly, the Tor browser takes you through at least three random detours called forwards. Your request can go from New York to South Africa, from South Africa to Hong Kong and from Hong Kong to New Jersey.
Tor is comprised of people from all over the planet who are contributing their computers to the network. It has more than 7,000 relays for you to choose from. Sending your request to random computers around the world makes it much harder for people to find you.
Software company Hyperion Gray has put together a map showing all 6,608 dark webs crawled in January 2018. Each screenshot is a web page, and the content ranges from nefarious to high. precious.
For some users – like journalists or whistleblowers – the dark web is about protecting identities. It’s a place where individuals can share tips anonymously with the press on secure drop sites. But more often than not, it’s tied to the world of cybercrime. Agents like Swensen are looking for the kind of users who want to hide their illegal activity.
Stopping this type of crime has been described as a “never ending game” for law enforcement. But even with the odds seemingly stacking up, the anonymity of the dark web can sometimes be in favor of the law. No ID and no location means you never really know who you’re communicating with.
– Ylan Mui and Karen James of CNBC contributed to this report.
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