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After Silk Road: Like Hydra The Darknet Is Bigger, Deeper & Darker Than Ever

Tue, Feb. 17, 2015 Posted: 12:10 AM


Let's get some definitions out of the way right off the bat, because a lot of people confuse the Dark Web with the Deep Web. We're basically dealing with three distinct concepts.

The Surface Web is anything that can be indexed by a typical search engine like Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.

Conversely, the Deep Web is anything that a search engine can’t find. For example, when you conduct a search on a website using a search box, you will extract results from the Deep Web. Government databases and libraries are home to massive amounts of Deep Web data.

And, the Darknet (also known as the Dark Web) is just a small portion of the Deep Web. It has been intentionally concealed and is inaccessible through standard web browsers like Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer. You can't get there from here.--at least not directly.

So, how is it accessed? Most often by way of TOR. The TOR network is an anonymous network which is accessed with a special web browser, called the TOR browser. It provides anonymity and is the avenue that leads to the illegal activities, such as those conducted on Silk Road, on the Darknet. It's the part of the Internet most infamously known for a variety of illicit activities.

Bottom line: the Darknet is simply a small portion of the Deep Web.

Not all Dark Web sites use Tor, however. Some use services such as I2P, and that would include Silk Road Reloaded, which emerged last month.

Gizmodo UK reports:

The infamous Silk Road resurrected itself like a junkie phoenix this month, leaving its long-time residence on Tor for a new anonymising service called the Invisible Internet Project, or I2P. News of the high-profile dark market's new address nudged the little-known I2P into the spotlight. Now, after a decade in the dark, the project is emerging as an alternative destination for cybercrime, and a strong complement or even alternative to its older sibling Tor.

I2P is the very deep web. The software project hosts sites that are not accessible through general search engines like Google, and, like Tor, anonymises traffic by ping-ponging it from proxy to proxy. Every machine using I2P acts as a router, which makes I2P a fully decentralized service. This is a security strength, since traffic can travel down different network paths in a way that frustrates any attempts at man-in-the-middle attacks. All traffic is encrypted end-to-end.

But unlike Tor, it's a terrible way to anonymously browse the internet outside of I2P, and by terrible I mean completely useless. I2P isn't designed to let you look at the BBC or YouPorn or UnicornsShitting.com anonymously. It's designed to let you browse 'eepsites' which are the sites hosted within the I2P intranet. This is a key distinction, and a reason why I2p and Tor are really more complementary services than rivals when it comes to web browsing.

Here's how underground I2P still is: The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading advocate of online privacy, hasn't really bothered investigating the 12-year-old anonymising service yet.

"I haven't found anyone who has taken an in-depth look at I2P yet," EFF media relations director Rebecca Jeschke told me in an email.”

While the main currency of the Darknet is Bitcoin, Silk Road Reloaded reportedly accepts at least 8 different types of cryptocurrencies, including Darkcoin. Traffic appears to be relatively light, so far, on Silk Road Reloaded, but elsewhere on the Darknet business is booming.

Silk Road was one of the pioneers of underground online marketplaces. When law enforcement agencies arrested Ross Ulbricht (Dread Pirate Roberts) in October 2013, the FBI said it had turned over $1.2 billion in just a little over two and half years, netting its owners over $80 million in profits.

Then, in November 2014 Brian Farrell (DoctorClu), second in command on Silk Road 2.0, faced charges for intent to distribute illicit drugs through the site. Blake Benthall (Defcon), the Kingpin, was also taken into custody late last year.

But, in the aftermath of these arrests and site takedowns, it looks as though the authorities’ efforts had virtually no impact.

"Participants who are in the black markets learn from what law enforcement is doing and change their tactics, adapt their tactics," says Lillian Ablon, a cyber-security researcher at RAND Corporation. "People who are not in the markets are now aware of the low-risk, high-gain of getting into these markets or the products that they could buy.”

The Dark Web operates essentially like Hydra and law enforcements’ efforts are swiftly met with new illicit marketplaces that deal in street and prescription drugs, weapons, prostitution, identity theft and more. Compared to some of the new markets that now populate the Darknet, Silk Road was relatively tame.

Some researchers maintain there are thousands of hidden services running on the Darknet. Two of the largest Darknet marketplaces are Agora Marketplace and Evolution Marketplace—both offer illicit products and services while primarily using Bitcoin as currency. The Darknet is also inhabited by individuals who are simply concerned about privacy and government surveillance who are not there for unlawful purposes.

In the marketplaces, consumer protection is built into the system by way of a vendor review system similar to that of Amazon. It helps to insure delivery of the products and services purchased.

Since the close of Silk Road in 2013, drug listings on the Darknet are estimated to have more than doubled. Agora Marketplace is absolutely thriving. A report by the Digital Citizens Alliance states that a total of 19,274 products are listed on Agora Marketplace and out of those, around 13,236 are drug listings. Agora Marketplace ranks second to Evolution Marketplace which has approximately 14,706 drug listings in total.

The Darknet is also an old stomping ground for hackers and hacktivists. Anonymous, for instance, has been very busy with several operations--#OpIsis (shutting down terrorist websites and social media accounts), #OpIran (a human rights campaign), #OpDeathEaters (exposing those involved in the sex slavery and child porn industry) and #OpSafeWinter (addressing homelessness worldwide)--to name a few. Many Christians, conservatives and others are now viewing the hacktivist collective in more positive terms. Anonymous operations are now viewed by many as much needed activism, though they may not necessarily agree with all of the various ops.

One of the comments most often seen across social media in regard to #OpISIS, for example, is that the Anons are simply doing what world governments should be doing but aren't. Shutting down websites and social media accounts won't stop terrorism, but it can slow it down. At the very least, it can dole out a strong dose of psychological warfare.

So, what's the next move for the authorities? Europol’s Troels Oerting is exceedingly confident that the remaining Darknet sites can be tracked down and dissolved. “This is just the beginning of our work. We will hunt these sites down all the time now,” he said, praising the cooperation of all the international law enforcement agencies involved. “We’ve proven we can work together now, and we’re a well-oiled machine. It won’t be risk-free to run services like this anymore.”

More promising, though, is a new search engine which is under development by DARPA. It would illuminate the dark web and uncover patterns and relationships in online data. The data would be used to help law enforcement track illegal activity.

Wired reports:

The project, dubbed Memex, has been in the works for a year and is being developed by 17 different contractor teams who are working with the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Google and Bing, with search results influenced by popularity and ranking, are only able to capture approximately five percent of the internet. The goal of Memex is to build a better map of more internet content.

'The main issue we’re trying to address is the one-size-fits-all approach to the internet where [search results are] based on consumer advertising and ranking,' says Dr. Chris White, the program manager for Memex, who gave a demo of the engine to the 60 Minutes news program.

To achieve this goal, Memex will not only scrape content from the millions of regular web pages that get ignored by commercial search engines but will also chronicle thousands of sites on the so-called Dark Web—such as sites like the former Silk Road drug emporium that are part of the TOR network’s Hidden Services.”

But, not everyone is as optimistic. It has long been held that the FBI is simply outpaced by cyber criminals. Shawn Henry, who retired from the FBI after more than two decades with the bureau has pointed out that the current public and private approach to fending off hackers and others is "unsustainable.'' Computer criminals are simply too talented and defensive measures too weak to stop them.

Hence, the Darknet game of cat and mouse continues.

Candice Lanier