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The Darknet: A secret world of snuff porn, drugs and guns

Videos of women torturing and killing animals such as cats and rabbits while simultaneously having sex, lethal weapons like the Walther PPK 9mm pistol being sold for a few Bitcoins, and groups that offer 'rape and murder services'.

tech Updated: Aug 10, 2015 03:22 IST
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Videos of women torturing and killing animals such as cats and rabbits while simultaneously having sex, lethal weapons like the Walther PPK 9mm pistol being sold for a few Bitcoins, and groups that offer “rape and murder services”. This and much more are available in the Darknet, a shadowy part of the internet. You can’t access the Darknet through search engines like Google or Bing — and even the world’s most powerful security agencies can rarely crack its clandestine activities.

The Dark Web entered public consciousness in 2013 when the FBI shut down Silk Road, a notorious Darknet website that that allowed anyone to buy or sell recreational drugs, and made over $8 million a month. Silk Road founder Ross William Ulbricht aka Dread Pirate Roberts was sentenced to life imprisonment. The website allowed users to trade in Bitcoin, a crypto-currency completely disconnected from banks and thus offering completely anonymity.

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Silk Road which was shut by FBI was notorious for selling illicit drugs.

Indian cyber security experts believe criminals and terrorists in the country could already be using the Darknet for their activities because law enforcement agencies simply don’t have the wherewithal to track such activities.

“The Dark web is something that you can’t figure out unless you get into it yourself,” said senior technology journalist Prasanto Roy. “Unfortunately, our government is clueless.”

That may be true, but 8 of the 857 websites that the government asked ISPs to block recently are Darknet websites, characterised by their telltale .onion URLs. They include Agora Market, a Silk Road clone that also specialises in selling illegal drugs.

Pavan Duggal, cyber law expert and author of “Darknet and Law” said , “Law enforcement agencies and governments round the world don’t even acknowledge the presence of the Darknet because they are incapable of tracking activities.”

Just this week, the Interpol’s Cyber Research Lab formed a private dark web network to reverse engineer its technologies in order to better understand how criminals use it.

A study done last year by the University of Portsmouth’s computer science researcher Gareth Owens found that 80% of the traffic on the Darknet was to websites hosting child pornography. After a six-month study of the hidden services and websites that can be accessed through the Tor browser, Owen found that sites offering drugs and contraband made up the single largest category within the Dark Web.

“Before we did this study, it was certainly my view that the Darknet is a good thing,” Owen was quoted as saying by the media. “But it’s hampering the rights of children and creating a place where paedophiles can act with impunity.”

Despite its depth and complexity, accessing the Dark Web is not very difficult. Most websites on the Darknet cover their tracks by using Tor, short for The Onion Router. People surfing the Darknet too can cover their tracks by using the Tor browser.

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Military-grade weapons being sold on the Darknet.

Tor was initially a worldwide network of services developed by the US Navy that allowed people to anonymously browse the internet. Now, it’s an open-source project that hides a user’s identity on the web by encrypting a computer’s unique IP address and bouncing it across several volunteer servers, known as “nodes”, around the world so that it’s virtually impossible to trace the user.

A Kolkata-based professional, who used Tor to access sites on the Darknet while he was a student in Karnataka, said he used Silk Road and Evolution, a marketplace for contraband, to order banned drugs.

“These websites change their IP every 12 hours, and I found a blog that had the latest address. I then got some bitcoins from my Australian friend by transferring money to him through my bank account,” he said.

“I ordered twice from Darknet sites — once, blots of acid (LSD) and Ecstasy the second time. The acid was delivered in the form of small pieces of paper that had been dipped the drug and hidden within a stamp album. The ecstasy was delivered in a lipstick.”

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Professional hitman services being offered on the Darknet.

People sometimes confuse the Darknet with the Deep Web, which too cannot be accessed by search engines. But a lot of the material on the Deep Web could be innocuous, such as the academic databases of universities and educational institutions, libraries or even material on internal servers of the Hindustan Times.

Despite its reputation, the Dark Web does have a few bright spots. During the Arab Spring, activists used Tor to anonymously pass on messages. Around the world, political dissidents and journalists have taken to the Darknet to cover their digital tracks for oppressive regimes.

“Indians are increasingly going on the Darknet after the revelations by (whistleblower) Edward Snowden about government surveillance and because non-state actors such as hackers groups could be watching their activities,” Duggal said.

“The Indian nation has not even woken up to the reality of the Darknet. We are still in the medieval age as far as our laws are concerned. We need to update tools and sensitise law enforcement agencies to this new challenge for India, which has the potential to destabilise security,” he added.