By Andrew Lumby

Encryption key image via Shutterstock
Encryption key image via Shutterstock

Early this month, U.S. officials seized and shut down a hidden but sprawling online marketplace called Silk Road, known as the eBay of illegal goods and services. The underground site had been a hub of illicit drug sales—including nearly 13,000 listings for heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other controlled substances, according to the FBI complaint.

The currency of this particular frontier is the Bitcoin, itself a highly anonymous currency—a Bitcoin account has no name or personal information attached to it—it is only identified by a string of 27-34 alphanumeric characters. Shoppers on the Bitcoin-based marketplace could also find hacking services, fake documents, pirated media, and much, much more.


“The site has sought to make conducting illegal transactions on the Internet as easy and frictionless as shopping online at mainstream e-commerce websites,” the FBI’s Christopher Tarbell said in the agency’s complaint.

It largely succeeded, if the FBI details about the business are any indication. From February 6, 2011 to July 23, 2013, more than 1.2 million transactions were completed on the site involving nearly 147,000 different buyers and nearly 4,000 different sellers. Transactions totaled the Bitcoin equivalent of $1.2 billion, earning the site and its owner some $80 million in commissions. That owner, a 29-year old man who allegedly went by the moniker “Dread Pirate Roberts” was arrested at a public library in San Francisco. The man, Ross William Ulbright, has been charged with three felonies. Several prominent users of the site have also been taken into custody, and more arrests are due to follow.

The question is how did a site that allegedly allowed users to buy illicit drugs, deal black market weapons, and even hire hit men stay above water long enough to handle that much revenue over its two-and-a-half years of operation?


The answer lies in what’s called the “Deep Web” or the “Dark Web”—hidden corners of the Internet that can’t be reached by Google and require connecting to an anonymous network called TOR that was originally developed by the U.S. Navy. The bust and media coverage of it have exposed that supposedly more private part of cyberspace, a netherworld that is only going to attract more attention in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations and the National Security Agency’s snooping scandal.

What exactly is the Deep Web? Here’s the CliffsNotes version:


While the standard industry definition for the Deep Web includes any site that isn’t crawled by a search engine, when most people talk about it, it’s generally in hushed tones as they gossip about the “dark side” of the web.

TFT_FINALTo understand the Deep Web, think about the Internet as an iceberg floating in the water. Near the pointy tip you have your Facebooks and your Googles and your YouTubes, and nearer the bottom you have the more esoteric, more legally questionable sites—4chan, torrent sites, hacking forums, and the like. Below the surface of the water you have a giant, jagged, sprawling mass—and that is the Deep Web.

It’s impossible to adequately quantify the Deep Web because so much of it is uncharted—some sites have been created to act as a road map to the place (The Hidden Wiki being the most well-known), but even the bravest of Internet cartographers have barely scratched the surface of this rabbit hole.

To access the Deep Web, it’s recommended—and in most cases required—that one use TOR. TOR, short for “The Onion Router” (because it has layers, geddit?), acts as an anonymizer, blocking traces to your computer’s IP address and location by running your traffic through several independently run “nodes” located around the globe. TOR is also the best browser to handle Deep Web URLs, which normally look like a long string of letters and numbers followed by the suffix “.onion.”

Once you’re in you might notice the uncanny similarity between the Deep Web and the “Star Wars” cantina. Sure there are a couple of people there trying to do legitimate business or just hang out, but they’re overshadowed by the reality that the place is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Just looking at a screenshot of the Hidden Wiki gives a strong impression: An ad for a web developer nestles between an ad for a weapons dealing site and an ad for a so-called “contract killer.” An incongruous looking link for “Gutenberg Press” advertising “high quality documents of all kinds” sits sheepishly below an insurmountable pile of hawkers offering fake ID’s, skimmed credit cards, and stolen PayPal accounts. And this is just the tame stuff.

Yes, all manner of awful, horrifying material—child porn, snuff films, bootleg Sting albums—are available to those willing to go far enough to get it. It really harkens back to the days when the Internet was the Wild West, minus the rose-tinted nostalgia and the 28kbps modem. Wikileaks operates mainly through TOR, and the privacy-oriented search engine DuckDuckGo also has a TOR base of operations. In light of the consistent leaks of the NSA’s controversial privacy breaches, the Deep Web almost stands out as a bastion of privacy, but it also acts as a solemn lesson that unchecked privacy does not always lead to good things.

WARNING: This explainer is for informational purposes only. We urge you not to try anything you read about here. If you get arrested because of this article, don’t come crying to us because we’ll probably just smugly point at this block of italicized text.

This article originally appeared in The Fiscal Times on August 13. More from The Fiscal Times:
What Are Bitcoins and Why Should You Care?
Video Game Changers: 21 Titles That Rocked the Industry
The 10 Most Incredible Cars of the Future