HONG KONG — Although most people have no idea how to access the dark web, their exposure on this hidden, crime-ridden corner of the internet continues to grow.
Six million hacked personal accounts were added to the dark web last week, adding to the 6.5 billion personal records already available in the internet’s netherworld, stolen from websites where internet users entrust their personal information every day.
This leaked data is passed around in forums where hackers gloat about their recent cybercrimes, and scammers go shopping for identities to steal.
These forums are just one part of a network of websites beneath the internet’s surface, where marketplaces trade drugs, and syndicates peddle child pornography and “hurtcore” torture videos. It’s possible there’s even hitmen for hire, though no one seems to know for sure.
The mystery is a key factor of the dark web, which can only be accessed using special software and, once you’re in, knowing where to go. Anonymous and monetised, with difficult-to-trace cryptocurrencies, the dark web is ideal for illicit activity.
Such activities stray far from the dark web’s origins in the 1990s, when US Naval researchers created a technology for communicating anonymously online. They constructed an internet browser with built-in layers of encryption and its own set of domain names. They kept it open to the public to generate more traffic that would camouflage their own activity.
As it turned out, the untraceable web was appealing to more than just government spies.
In the intervening two decades, who and what is on the net has become a shifting landscape of drugs and porn, but also things that you might not expect. So, what else is down there?
There are billions of leaked records of personal information available on the dark web, and more are added with frightening frequency. Those records reportedly include everything from Facebook login credentials, credit card numbers and medical records to hacks of personal computers and devices, including photos and video, even from home surveillance systems.
ID packages are sold on the cheap containing full fake identities, including people’s real names, addresses, credit card numbers and ID numbers. There’s even US voter database records with names, addresses, and the immigration status of 81 million Americans, leaked in recent months, according to cybersecurity firm Carbon Black.
ILLEGALLY TRAFFICKED ANIMAL PRODUCTS
Rhino horn, elephant ivory and tiger parts were among the products from critically endangered species that international law enforcers have identified being traded on dark web markets in recent years.
As international regulations on the sale of many wildlife products tighten, authorities suspect more sales could be driven under the curtain of the dark web. Luckily, though, these wildlife sales remain a tiny subset of dark web transactions, which are mostly drugs and porn.
The dark web was part of Islamic State’s multi-platform sale of art and antiquities, looted from heritage sites across Syria and Iraq, and hawked on messaging platforms and via dark web auction sites. In another case, a rare painting stolen in a smash-and-grab heist of a New Zealand art gallery in 2017 appeared to turn up for sale on the dark web a few months later, although authorities later said they believed it was a scam.
Ironic, given that the technology used to access the dark web was originally for keeping military communication safe, but military secrets have ended up for sale on its markets.
Last year, US military plans for combat drones, reportedly stolen from an air force captain’s computer, went up for sale on the dark web, along with operation and training manuals for other equipment and tactics. Weapons, manuals and bomb-making instructions have also reportedly changed hands on the dark web.
ACTIVISM, JOURNALISM AND ... FACEBOOK
It may not be what comes straight to mind, but the dark web also enables whistle-blowers (such as Edward Snowden) to communicate with journalists, and people in repressive states to access information or organise political dissent without being traced.
For this reason, popular mainstream websites including ProPublica, the Pulitzer-winning investigative news outlet, and even Facebook have sister sites in the dark web domain so that people can access their content without being monitored. And in today’s age of traffic analysis and big data, that purpose is no less relevant than when the network was founded.