Dark Web Marketplaces: Part 1 of 3
This is part one of a three-part series.
There’s a trap door in the Internet. It leads to an underworld that’s the dark side of the world wide web most of us know and love. According to researchers, only 4% of the Internet is visible to the general public. The remaining 96% is a fascinating labyrinth of data estimated to be over 10 petabytes in size and growing exponentially 24/7.
The Dark Web is a playground and resource depot for illicit activities and illegal trade, as well as more nefarious activities like sex crimes, arms sales, and terrorism. For clarification, the Dark Web, also called the Dark Net (also darknet), is a portion of a vast nether land known as the Deep Web or Hidden Web, as opposed to the Surface Web.
A simple distinction is this: The Surface Web consists of stuff a search engine can find while the Deep Web holds everything else.
Contrary to rumors, the Deep Web is not an illegal or immoral realm, although some of the content is certainly shady.
And to be fair, much of the Deep Web comprises harmless, innocuous content such as libraries, academic research archives, enormous databases and corporate intranets, all of which conventional browsers cannot access. Specific repositories include NASA files, climate and weather data and music files from MPC.com.
Finally, the Dark Web is a subset of the Deep Web. Researchers estimate that the Dark Web makes up just about 0.01% of the Deep Web. What’s the difference between the two? The Dark Web is composed of host machines serving up information that cannot be reached by conventional means due to private router settings to mask IP addresses. Host machines that use peer-to-peer DNS systems can create Internet hosts outside of government controls.
The history of the Deep Web charts back to 1969 and the early days of the ARPANET, the early version of the Internet developed by the Pentagon’s Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Back then, the ARPANET was a platform for military and academic data storage and communications. But within just a few years, secretive networks began to appear alongside the ARPANET.
In fact, it’s now widely known that students at both Stanford and MIT used the ARPANET to purchase marijuana in the early 1970’s in a foretelling of the future of the Dark Web as a marketplace for illicit goods.
The Internet as we know it today emerged from the primordial sea of bits and bytes created by the ARPANET. So the Deep Web actually predates the modern-day version of the Internet, which began taking shape in the last half of the 1980’s.
The Surface Web that most people know and use dates to just before Christmas in 1990. That’s when a British engineer and computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee put the finishing touches on the first Internet browser. He also published the first known website to describe his work. Sadly, this historic electronic landmark has been deleted or lost in cyberspace. Berners-Lee has been heralded as the father of the World Wide Web and was knighted by the Queen of England for his contributions to science.
By the late 1990s, the Internet was hitting its stride as the “Information Superhighway.” Moore's Law, put forth in 1965 and later revised in 1975, portended a doubling of computing horsepower every two years. File storage costs were plummeting. These developments, plus advances in file compression and peer-to-peer networking, touched off an explosion of Dark Web activity.
In March of 2000, Irish software developer Ian Clarke released Freenet, a ground-breaking program that offered anonymous access to the darkest reaches of the web. “Freenet is a near-perfect anarchy,” Clarke told The New York Times. “I have two words for companies (trying to stop free file-sharing): ‘Give up.’”
In late September of 2002, the US government introduced a technology key to the future of the Dark Web. Dubbed “The Onion Router”, this software concealed the location and IP address of its users. Brilliantly, the program was intended to protect the identities of American spies and state department officials as well as dissidents in repressive regimes like China or the Soviet Union.
The Onion Router morphed into an early version of what is now known as “Tor”, derived from the acronym for The Onion Router (TOR). The first public release of Tor occurred in 2004 after the Naval Research Lab released the code under a free license.
Today, Tor software is how the Dark Web has become an “anonymity network.” Tor permits users to anonymously surf the Dark Web, chat and send instant messages. Tor is used by a wide variety of people for both legal and illicit purposes. Curiously, it has been used by both criminals and law enforcement agencies, often at the same time for cross-purposes—to conduct crime by one and pursue the criminals by the other.
The advent and perfection of Tor marked the dawn of the current epoch in the Dark Web’s history. Stay tuned for the next chapter on the Dark Web, where we will delve deeper into the underworld of threats that lurk beneath the surface of the Surface Web.