Unless you’re a drug dealer, assassin, spy, pedophile or black market profiteer, you’ve likely never heard of it.
It is the electronic highway of choice for those wanting to operate off the grid. For the rest of us, it sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. This alternative Internet, also known as the Dark Web, burst into the public’s consciousness following the October 2013 bust by the FBI of the infamous Silk Road, one of the best-known sites in this secret society.
The Silk Road was a marketplace where people could buy and sell a veritable menagerie of illicit drugs and other products from the comfort of their own homes. The purchase of heroin, methamphetamines, crack, cocaine, LSD, and ecstasy were conducted anonymously and the merchandise was sent to buyers via the U.S. postal service. (According to the Guardian, as of March 2013, the site had 10,000 products for sale, 70% of which were drugs.) Launched in February 2011, the Silk Road functioned like EBay® allowing individuals to market their wares using the subterranean Internet which they could access using a funky tool known as Tor (aka The Onion Router).
What is Tor? (Heads-Up: This technical information that will make you sound really smart if you repeat it.)
Tor is a fascinating technology that allows users to browse the Dark Web without being monitored or intercepted. It is a free tool that keeps a user’s browsing private and anonymous. Instead of taking a direct route from source to destination, data packets are sent through various nodes. Each time the packet hits a new node, new encryption keys are generated and the information is relayed until it reaches its final destination. Therefore, no observer can tell where the data came from or where it’s going. You can’t get to the Dark Web using a search engine or Internet browser—you can only get to the underground sites by using Tor.
And it gets stranger… No cash, credit cards or Paypal are used by vendors. Transactions are conducted using an alternative currency known as Bitcoins, a weird, untraceable currency completely outside the regulations of governments and the bounds of regular commerce. Sounds a little bit like Monopoly money, right?
Like any good technology, Tor is used by the good, the bad, and the ugly. As strange and illicit as Tor sounds, it was actually developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to protect sensitive U.S. communications. Today it is used by all kinds of miscreants as well as human rights activists, journalists, the military, law enforcement officers, intelligence agencies, hackers, and regular Joe’s.
Despite what you may think of the Silk Road, the Dark Web, and Tor, they have fueled a vigorous debate about freedom and privacy. Even though the U.S. government has shut down the Silk Road, the fact that it reportedly facilitated $1.2 billion in sales (according to the Department of Justice criminal complaint filed against alleged mastermind Ross William Ulbricht) means that similar enterprises will pop up to take its place. By the same token, the U.S. government’s continued efforts to collect data on U.S. citizens means people will continue to search for ways to get away from the prying eyes of Uncle Sam. It will be fascinating to see how the underground Internet and other technologies evolve in response to this new era of connectedness that we both celebrate and curse.
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the CIA or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.