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Secret Agent Man: Shining a Light on the Deep Dark Web

This post is part of the Tech Tuesday series brought to you by NTEC

A super-secret task force, is tracking down a notorious arms and drug dealer who uses the web to traffic his illicit merchandise. And just as our special agent-in-charge, Agent Smith, closes in on his nemesis, a failed assassination and quick capture of the hitman, reveals the existence of a contract placed on an assassin-for-hire website somewhere in the dark web.  Will the team be able to find the shipment of contraband and track down the next killer in time? – Stay tuned for this exciting adventure.

We have all seen the weekly crime drama or Hollywood action movie that plots the crime solving skills of our character against the vast World Wide Web and all the latest technology available to the super villain.  But what and where is the deep web? How is it different than the Dark Web?  Can I accidentally stumble into the abyss? 

Let’s begin by understanding the different layers of the web.  Right now as you read this article you are on the surface web.  Most websites you visit for entertainment or news, and any site you would find as a result of a search from Google make up the surface web.  Search engines use spiders or bots to crawl the internet and create indexes that report back the information we look for.  But what happens when a spider hits a link that requires input?  It simply ignores the link and tries a different one.  A prime example would be your financial institution, by either visiting the website or searching for mortgage rates you can find all the public information that is readily available from them, but what you can’t do is Google your account balances or credit card statements.  Those require a secure user login.

Another type of input link that a bot or spider cannot navigate is search bars.  Ever booked an airline, hotel or rental car?  In order to succeed you must provide criteria directly to the service provider in order to get the result of what is available based upon the dates you desire.  This is where the deep web begins, and it’s not a bad place.  The deep web is vastly larger than the surface web.  Some experts predict that 5% of the Internet is surface web and the other 95% would be in the deep web.  Large amounts of data available to those who know where to look, or have the credentials, or in our story, the subpoena to access it.

And now, back to our special agent who is trying to stop the shipment of machine guns and the newest designer drugs.  The team has been analyzing bank transfers and cargo shipments that seem to narrow down who it’s going to and when it will be shipped.  As the tactical detail gears up and heads to the docks to seize the cargo container, the tech team has had a breakthrough on the name of the assassin website.  The scene plays out around a large screen with a map of the world.  The tech enters a few key strokes and on the display appears a small dot that represents the server, somewhere in a major metropolitan area.  Before Agent Smith can act though, a small dotted line races to another location, this time in Europe.  Quickly lines are appearing all over the globe, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Los Angeles, and Rio.  The tech reports to our favorite super-agent that the assassin server is hiding its IP address and it can’t be traced.  Welcome to the Dark Web.

Image Courtesy Stefano Desabbata

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The Dark web, just like the surface and deep web all run on the same physical infrastructure. Surface web is all the areas that search engines can see, deep web is all the areas that search engines can’t see. What defines the Dark web though is anonymity.

Special protocols and even web browsers exist that are needed to navigate this deepest section of the internet.  The most common protocol and browser to get into the deep web is TOR, an acronym for “The Onion Router”.  And just as the techie found out servers and users on deep web are protected by layers and layers of encrypted IP addresses that continuously bounce their identity and location around the world, law enforcement has been able to stop some of the illicit and heinous activity that happens down there.

The first, and still most widely known case, was that of Silk Road creator Ross William Ulbricht.  Silk Road was the Amazon Prime meets EBay of the Dark Web.  By utilizing the required browsers and gaining access to the hidden site, individuals were able to purchase illicit drugs online.  Ross William Ulbricht was eventually identified and caught by exposing his identity off of the deep web.  He was utilizing web marketing tactics to drive traffic to Silk Road.  By tracking down his Gmail account and following clues posted on LinkedIn, the FBI arrested and charged Ulbricht in October of 2013.

The cameras cut back in as the tactical team sets up on the target location.  The ear piece of our secret agent crackles to life, “GO! GO! GO!” With an onset of flashing police lights our hero rushes through the door just in time to find the buyer handing a suitcase of money to the supplier.  Once the cuffs are locked on, the fearless villain caves to the field interrogation tactics and supplies the administrator login to the website promising the large bounty on our man.  Our story ends with the shutting down of the dark web site and Agent Smith ready to face another challenge at a later date.

To us everyday users of the internet we casually enter the deep web without ever realizing it.  Having security around information is one way that the World Wide Web has grown to the tool it is today.  Technology and protocols have made available online processes and resources that are so easily accessed from our desktop computers and mobile devices that we could not go back.  Can you believe we used to call and talk to someone just to get a pizza delivered?   Did you ever think that entire academic libraries would be available to us average Joes if we only knew where to look?  The deep web is where it all happens.  Nothing to be scared of here.

The Dark Web today houses many unsavory individuals, making available some of the worst content and illegal contraband thinkable.  Only the most curious of us will venture in and explore that world.  However initiatives are underway to further adopt the potential security upside of the Dark Web.  The TOR project was first started as a way for individuals to mask their identity when surfing websites or communicating with other users online and there are plenty of legitimate reasons why we would want to protect our online identity.  Even though we hear more about the illegal and immoral uses of the Dark Web, the technologies and capabilities it is spawning will change the future of online security.