Is online privacy dead? Tailored ads created by your online searches follow you as you go from website to website. Facebook can track your location based on your restaurant pictures. Personalized email offers from retailers flood your inbox. As data collecting becomes more and more mundane (and inevitable), whether for marketing purposes or by the National Security Agency, keeping your online profile anonymous has become a struggle. So much of our identity is tied to what we do online and no matter how many times you delete your browsing history or erase your cookies, your individual thumbprint still remains.
It didn’t always used to be like this. Through much of the 1990s, the Web promised people a second life. They could be whoever they wanted to be online, with almost no consequences. With the arrival of social media, particularly Facebook, however, our online persona once again mirrored your real life. Perhaps predicting this, in 1996 the U.S. Navy established a system within the Internet where users could browse the Internet completely anonymously. They called their idea “onion routing” because of the layers of encryption that surround and obscure the data being passed back and forth. Nowadays, it is simply known as Tor and just like Spotify or Dropbox, the program software is free to access and it takes less than three minutes to download and install. With this tool, you can enter the Deep Web, going entirely off the grid.
Technically the Deep Web refers to a collection of all the websites and databases that search engines like Google don’t or can’t index, which in terms of the sheer volume of information is many times larger than the Web as we know it. In fact, the Web we know is only 19 terabytes. Everything else is 7,500 terabytes. And Tor allows users to surf it without leaving a trace. In essence, the creation of the Deep Web and Tor is a blessing and a useful tool for law enforcement. The police could use it to solicit anonymous tips online, set up sting operations and explore illegal websites without tipping off their owners. Military and intelligence agencies could use it for covert communications. The State Department could train foreign dissidents to use it. Indeed Tor is downloaded 30-50 million times a year. There are 80,000 daily Tor users—a jump of 20% in the past year.
But Tor also offers an electronic haven for thieves, forgers, peddlers of state secrets and loose nukes, assassins, child pornographers and human traffickers. Human trafficking is already known as “the hidden crime” and exchanging human bodies online in an untraceable way makes it even more heart wrenching. It’s the work of a minute or two to find weapons or child pornography on the Deep Web. In August, the FBI took down Freedom Hosting, a company specializing in Deep Web sites, alleging that it was “the largest facilitator of child porn on the planet.” Its owner, a 28-year-old named Eric Marques, remains in Irish custody and has a potential prison sentence of 100 years. Two months ago, the FBI cracked down and arrested another notorious Deep Web figure. Known online as the Dread Pirate Roberts, Ross Ulbricht, was the owner and administrator of Silk Road, a wildly successful online bazaar where people bought and sold illegal goods—primarily drugs but also fake IDs, fireworks and hacking software. Dubbed “the Amazon.com of illegal drugs” or “the eBay for drugs” this underground website offered user reviews and was insanely popular. Part of its appeal was that unlike its similar counterpart The Farmers Market, which also sold illegal drugs, Silk Road used bitcoins. Bitcoins is a form of digital currency. Users can transfer them from one digital wallet to another without banks brokering the transaction or imposing fees. The currency is completely decentralized and is based on sophisticated cryptography. Bitcoin is fundamentally cash for the Internet, virtually anonymous and extremely difficult to counterfeit. And when you purchase something off Silk Road or another Deep Web site, the products simply arrive by regular mail to your home address, just like any other online order.
Like Tor, Bitcoin has legitimate reasons for existing and is in fact, used by regular websites such as Howard Johnson, OKCupid, Reddit and WordPress. NPR recently did a piece on how carpet merchants in U.S.-sanctioned Iran use bitcoins to sell their products around the world and make a living. So it does have some benefits. But overwhelmingly, criminals use Tor and bitcoins to engage in illegal activities. As a human trafficker, I can safely secure fake passports and fake IDs for the people I’m trafficking. I can even take pictures or record them, sell it as porn, or straight up sell them online. In return, I’m paid in completely undetectable digital currency that’s regulated by no one. I don’t have to worry about exchange rates or finding a safe place to store it. It simply exists in my digital account. I can buy drugs to make my victims complacent and weapons in case they try to escape. If a competitor moves on to my turf, I can hire a hit man and take care of it.
Though the Deep Web offers reprieve from the constant scrutiny most of us suffer daily as we surf the Internet, it must be supervised, at least in the name of the countless victims it exploits. Tor can access 6,500 hidden websites and counting. It takes the FBI months to even get a whiff of a perpetrator’s true identity in real life. Though it was created by the U.S. government and receives funding from the State Department and the Department of Defense, Tor is unbreakable and uncontrollable. Silk Road 2.0 already went up as if nothing happened. Congress is in talks about regulating Bitcoin, but more needs to be done. Human trafficking will continue to be a hidden crime as long as Tor continues to exist.
- The Secret Web: Where Drugs, Porn and Murder Live Online
- Eric Eoin Marques Remanded into Custody for Two Weeks
- Silk Road Competitor Shuts Down and Another Plans To Go Offline After Claimed $6 Million Theft
- Bitcoin Makes a Pitch for ‘Safe and Sane’ Regulation