Technology

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Ian Morris: You're just a few clicks away from child porn and assassins for hire

Ian Morris ventures deep into a cyberspace that most people are unaware of

Ian Morris

Published 02/03/2014|02:30

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Many of the Dark Net sites accept Bitcoins as currency
Many of the Dark Net sites accept Bitcoins as currency

Welcome to the Dark Net home to all the frightening things you might imagine the internet is capable of. In its sinister corners, guns, black market merchandise, drugs, child pornography and even contract killing are all readily available to anybody with an internet connection, money and the desire to seek them out.

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We imagine that in the modern world, with all of its technology and 'security' that the public should be safer than ever – but that just isn't the case. Never before has the criminal world had such a platform for networking, organising and distributing its violence, poison and abuse; and it's happening all around us.

Last weekend, in my local pub, I overheard two guys at the next table excitedly telling a third about the ads for 'assassins for hire' they had seen. I glanced over and saw that they were hipster college types in their early 20s.

"I couldn't believe it was so cheap," one said.

"It's crazy, there's so many of them," said the other.

With my interest piqued, I continued to eavesdrop as they told their friend about the almost definitely illegal, if not certainly immoral things they had seen earlier that day. No longer willing to settle for overheard scraps of information, I turned and interrupted them. I asked, in as friendly a tone as I could, what they were talking about – and they were more than happy to tell me.

"Normally, when you want to find something on the internet, you use Google or Yahoo or some other well known search engine. This is like a codename for all the illegal and sick stuff that Google and Yahoo can't find."

"Can't find?" I enquired.

"Yeah, I think it's like 80 per cent of the internet that you can't search through with normal web browsers – all that stuff is hidden in there."

They went on to tell me about the wide availability of weapons, drugs and abusive material via these websites.

Unsure of how much of what they told me was true, I Googled the name they gave me, (which I won't repeat here), the next morning and discovered that, if anything, they had slightly undersold it. Less than one per cent of the internet is searchable using regular search engines like Google. The other 99 per cent is comprised of all sorts of random data and odd files, many of which are perfectly legal, but this is where the Dark Net has, for obvious reasons, established itself. According to the page I was reading, all I had to do to find these files was to use a free search engine and right next to this advice was a link to a website that advertises itself as a search engine that protects the anonymity of users from anyone trying to scrutinise their behaviour or learn their location. It works in a dual capacity, keeping the user anonymous whilst also allowing access to anonymous material hidden. While this may be an advantage to whistleblowers or residents of countries living under strict regimes, it has unquantifiable potential for abuse.

Moments after clicking the 'link, I was surfing – and before I knew it I had found all kinds of illegal activity.

The first sites I came across were huge big indexes that were like phone books filled with web links, arranged alphabetically by vice. These indexes led to some of the general black market sites that were listed, which are all very like Amazon.com in their approach with their categorised merchandise, shopping carts and checkout areas. Some even have a delivery zone option which tells you what countries they are willing to ship to – and most are happy to deliver to Ireland.

These sites act as mediums for vendors to peddle their odious wares and – with several thousand listings on the few sites I visited – this is obviously big business with a client base large enough to demand the supply.

Most of the sites operated using the online currency called 'bitcoin', which was introduced in 2009 as an innovative new digital currency. While the governments of some countries – such as Canada, Germany and Australia – have been happy to simply apply the normal taxes etc that other currencies are subject to, other nations have become wary of its potential for enabling illegal behaviour. 'Bitcoins' have quickly become very useful to online criminal activity, with a lion's share of the currency being used either for online gambling or to purchase illegal contraband from sites like the ones mentioned above.

So why is nobody doing anything to put an end to all of this flagrant criminal activity? The answer is simple: almost as soon as a page has been blocked by the authorities, it reopens under a different web address.

In October last year, one of these 'markets' was shut down by US authorities who seized 144,000 bitcoins – equivalent to US$28.5m at the time. (That's right, $28.5m from just one of these black market websites.) By November 6, a replacement was in operation, promising its customers improved security – a promise which was broken on February 13 when the site was hacked and $2.7m-worth of bitcoins was stolen from its customers' accounts.

This is another element of these sites. People steal and hack constantly – in fact, a big portion of the ads and services displayed are suspected to be scams attempting to steal 'bitcoins' from other users. There's no honour among thieves.

Before now, I didn't understand how easy it would be for someone to watch child porn, buy drugs or to order the death of another human being without leaving the comfort of their living room.

The online world may be the largest frontier that mankind has ever tried to police – and, with indefinite borders, right now it's like the Wild West. There's a sense of law and order in some places, but it's so vast that it's impossible to control. It's frightening to think that any young child or teen could all too easily find themselves browsing the same pages that I did. Having seen enough of what was on offer, I closed the browser and happily deleted its software from my PC forever.

Sunday Independent

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