The Dark Web

What happens on side of the internet hidden from immediate view? Hugh McInerney investigates.

Researchers believe that only 4% of the information on the internet is represented on Google’s index of roughly 35 trillion webpages. This means that there are over 700 trillion webpages that are inaccessible through the world’s most popular search engine. This then leads to the question of how illicit and scandalous must these web pages be, if not even an internet giant like Google can tell us they exist?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite all high intrigue and priceless secrets. This figure comprises many pages not instantly accessible from your search bar. Examples include a blog post about how your pet was your life that you might have uploaded when you were twelve, but one day found and immediately took down, hoping that “” wasn’t as popular as your young self had believed. It also includes password protected content, and information stored behind subscriptions, as found on the websites of many newspapers. Companies such as RTÉ or TV3’s internal networks, or intranets, are other pages hidden from Google’s reach. Anything that search engines don’t present is said to be part of the “deep web”.

These sites aren’t necessarily nefarious. They are merely pages inaccessible via a hyperlink, the data reference method which Google and other search engines rely  on when providing search results. However, the “deep web” and “dark web” are two distinct entities and it is the latter which is less innocent; even though the dark web is part of the deep web, the terms should not be confused. While the terms dark web and Darknet are the two that can be used interchangeably, as they are essentially the same. A Darknet is a network that can only be accessed with a specific software. If you want to access a Darknet, you can’t just fire up Internet Explorer and log on. You need to download a browser that is specifically capable of accessing this hidden network. The most popular of these is the Onion Router (Tor), named because it uses onion encryption to secure information.

The data is encrypted in several layers. When the data is transmitted, it travels through a series of network nodes. Once it arrives at the next node, a layer of encryption is “peeled” away, like the layers of an onion. This method of encryption is considered secure as each node only knows the location of the one immediately before and after it. So when information arrives at its destination and is finally decrypted, the destination can only know where the last node was, not the original source. As such, Tor is considered relatively secure and data sent via it is usually unable to be tracked.

With the Darknet accessed relatively easily, many people simply use Tor to browse the internet privately. Most websites use cookies, and this information is often stored by sites such as Google and Facebook to tailor their advertising content to the browser. For example, when an internet user views something they are interested in buying from Amazon but doesn’t add it to their cart, the advertisement on the side of other websites will be from Amazon  displaying the special price on offer for the good viewed. While some hate this invasion of privacy, some find it helpful that advertising is useful and tailored towards their specific wants. Many are simply indifferent or unaware.

While using Tor to securely browse the internet is one of its purposes, the secure network is often used for the purchase of illegal items. Because of how hard it is to track users on the dark web, it became widely used for the sale of illegal goods The Silk Road website, shut down in 2013 by the FBI, was the most famous black market on the network. Even though this website no longer exists, many clones have popped up to  fill the gap left by the marketplace’s demise.

However, using conventional bank accounts to buy illegal items on the dark web negates the anonymity it provides, as these transactions could be traced. This is where bitcoin comes in. Bitcoin is a completely decentralised currency created by someone under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamato. His supposed Japanese nationality is dubious and  it may even have been a group that created the software. It is completely open-source, meaning anyone can examine the code. Bitcoin can be earned or  “mined” by setting a computer to compute mathematical solutions to verify and record previous bitcoin transactions.

It first appeared in 2009 and was relatively unheard of for a number of years. Recently however, demand for bitcoin has surged. In July 2010, one bitcoin was worth $0.09. In January 2017, a single bitcoin was worth over a thousand dollars. In July 2017, one bitcoin will set you back over two and a half thousand dollars. Because no one government or bank owns or distributes bitcoins, it means transactions  cannot be traced, providing anonymity to anyone wishing to purchase things off the dark web.

Fascinated by the potential these layers of protection offer, I spoke to a frequent user of bitcoin and the dark web I met online. Conor was happy to answer my questions about his experiences with the currency and buying items using Tor. When asked what he thought of the dark web, he gave an  interesting insight: “It’s what you use to get anything you can’t get legally, from drugs to cheap lifetime Spotify subscriptions.” He explained the range of things you could get off a single website: “We were going to buy a taser, but we never did,” Conor tells me, followed by a sad faced emoji that I  had to presume meant he regretted not doing so.

As the Silk Road is no longer available, I asked him what website he now uses to buy whatever he desires. He didn’t wish to give its name, but he said that him and a few of his friends did some research and chose the one that had the best reviews and highest buyer confidence. He told me that downloading and setting up Tor was easy. It was setting up bitcoin which was slightly harder, “We downloaded an application onto the laptop to purchase bitcoin, and solely bitcoin. You don’t usually buy a full bitcoin, only a percentage of one. You just buy however much you need.” He warned that it was far from a stable currency though, saying the cryptocurrency “fluctuates like fuck.”

It is possible for customers to buy a small amount, such as a hundred euro’s worth, without validating your account. For any purchases made after the first however, you need to send a picture of yourself holding your ID to verify it is indeed you. This wasn’t a concern for Conor, as he told me the transactions account can not be traced because they “are all unregulated code.” Once he set up his account and bought the bitcoin, he received what was “basically an IBAN that we use to buy things with our bitcoins”. With this, it is instantly possible to go onto the dark web marketplace and add whichever  items into your cart.

The website that he and his friends use is quite similar to Amazon, with various categories of items and even customer reviews: “You can filter the origin country your product comes from, so if you wanted some weed in the next few days you would pick Ireland or England.” This came with the added caveat that this cannabis was often dearer and poorer quality than that bought from the continent.

There are also different ratings for each seller, with stealth being an important factor. “We were nervous about ordering our first package, so we chose a seller with a very high stealth rating,” Conor explained. “When the envelope arrived, inside were some food coupons and a soup packet, but instead of soup the seller had packed our bud inside. The fact that it was vegetable soup was a nice touch.” Conor added. Once they’d gotten over the initial jitters, they began ordering from sellers that had better quality ratings but slightly lower stealth ratings. I asked if he was ever worried about the Gardaí seizing it and their getting caught. “Not really,” he told me. “We always put fake delivery names, and get the package delivered to one of the lads who’s living in student accommodation. If the Gardaí ever do cop on, he can just deny it was him as it wasn’t his name on the envelope”. He tells me that sometimes customs send you a notice saying your package was seized, and ask you to come and collect it, but obviously you never do unless you want to experience being in the dock first-hand.

Another feature of the marketplace that reassures Conor and his friends is the reviews other customers left on the website: “People would write entire paragraphs about not only how safe and efficient it was, but how good the product was too.”

When I asked him why he would go to this extra bother as opposed to just finding a local dealer, he told me there were two main factors; quality and price. “Everything’s a lot cheaper on the dark web,” Conor explains. “If you buy locally, it’s usually 2.5 grams for fifty euro, and you have to trust your dealer that you’re getting good weed and not some parsley that might even be sprayed in cocaine to get you hooked.” While that sounded like some sort of strange diet fad, he assured me that it does happen. “On the dark web you can buy 10 grams for eighty euro, and it’s guaranteed to be top quality stuff.” By cutting out the middleman, they can ensure a higher product quality and lower prices for higher risk,  though Conor doesn’t believe that it’s much higher than just meeting your dealer around the back of Tesco after dark: “The risk is worth the reward to us.”

When I asked him how long it usually took, he told me the their average wait was under a week, with a week and a half their longest. While buying weed was all they used the dark web for, I asked him if he’d ever explored the more nefarious parts of the illegal online shop. “We always kept ours purely medicinal,” he said, “but there’s everything on there. Pills, snort, whatever you want. Obviously the risk gets a lot higher if you go for more hardcore stuff, but we never did. You can buy guns and even more horrible things on there, but we never explored that end of it.” When I asked him to elaborate, he seemed reticent: “The Taser was the most dangerous thing we ever considered, but there’s some scary, scary things for sale on there.”

Conor’s choice to use the Dark Web is based upon three simple reasons: “It was easy. It was cheap. And it was good shit.” The dark web turns people who want to smoke some weed into market speculators and critics. It now appears that it is not just traditional industries losing out to international competition, but even local drug dealers are being undercut, meaning even more local and unexpected jobs lost to online shopping. With more and more people showing interest in the dark web and bitcoin, these dark net marketplaces seem likely to keep growing in popularity – so long as customers believe they won’t get caught.

Hugh McInerney

Hugh McInerney is the host and producer of Trinity News' podcast.