The Darknet: Black Market and Sanctuary

What Exactly Is the 'Darknet'?

(TIL) Today I Learned what the Dark Web Is
(TIL) Today I Learned what the Dark Web Is. Bill Hinton Photography / Getty

The Darknet is also called the 'Dark Web' or the 'Deep Web'. It is part black market and part sanctuary. The Darknet is a specialized group of websites where everyone's identity is cloaked against authorities, trackers, and law enforcement. Regular search engines and regular web browsers cannot see Darknet  pages. It is a private virtual space where people move in complete anonymity to achieve both positive and nefarious ends.

What Is the Purpose of the Darknet ?

The dark web is about protection from authorities and law enforcement
The dark web is about protection from authorities and law enforcement. Powell / Getty

The overaching intent of the Darknet is to provide a haven of safe anonymity online, where people can virtually interact without fear of the law or other punishment. The Darknet houses conversation forums, whistleblower blogs, matchmaking services, online marketplaces, documentation resources, and other services.

The Positive: The Darknet, in part, is a sanctuary for democracy and opposition to corruption. Here, whistleblowers can go to report corporate and government misconduct to journalists, exposing corruption that is hidden from the public.  The Darknet is also a place for individuals in oppressive countries or oppressive religions to find like-minded thinkers, and possibly find help to escape their oppressive circumstances. And thirdly, the Darknet is a haven for journalists and people of controversial lifestyles (like BDSM) to communicate and network without fear of reprisals.

The Negative: the Darknet is also a black market, where contraband and illegal services can be bought and sold. Narcotics, firearms, stolen credit card numbers, illegal pornography, money laundering services, and even hiring assassins are some of the marketplace options available to you on the Darknet.

How Does the Dark Web Work?

the Dark Web conceals your identity through complex encryption
the Dark Web conceals your identity through complex encryption. Oliver / Getty

You need to be computer-proficient enough to install and use specialized software.  If that's you, then there are two Darknet options available to you:  the I2P protocol, and the TOR protocol.  These are two different technologies that handle the cloaking and anonymizing work behind the scenes.

In both cases, the Darknet works by using complex mathematical encryption to scramble the personal identities, network identities, and the physical locations of the participants. All network traffic is bounced around thousands of servers around the world, making tracing effectively impossible. All business and messaging is conducted via pseudonyms that are disconnected from your real identity. Most money transactions use bitcoin and the services of escrow third-party services to protect both the buyer and seller from dishonest trading. 

To participate in either the I2P or TOR Darknet, you need to install specialized encryption software, a specialized web browser, and if you want to purchase anything: you'll also need to buy bitcoins and install bitcoin wallet  software.

There are Two Darknets?

TOR and I2P dark web
TOR and I2P are the two dark web protocols. Tor

Yes, there are two darknets, with the TOR darknet being the more popular of the two. TOR focuses on giving users anonymous access to both the regular web and the Darknet. Dark websites on TOR use the .onion domain name (e.g. addresses like http://silkroadvb5piz3r.onion). Darknet surfing is usually faster with TOR, and the cloaked population is very high in the TOR virtual world. 

TOR stands for 'The Onion Router'. 

I2P is a smaller hidden network, generally slower for speed performance, and more exclusive than TOR; you cannot use I2P browsing to see regular web pages. I2P is expected to grow in population over time, and some argue that I2P is more resistant to law enforcement surveillance.

I2P stands for 'Invisible Internet Project'.

How Do You Pay for Products and Services on the Darknet?

How to pay for goods on the Dark Web
How to pay for goods on the Dark Web. Layda / Getty

Since using PayPal or credit card payments would give away your identity, the Darknet prefers to use bitcoin virtual currency, which is even less traceable than cash. In many cases, a third-party escrow service will act on behalf of both the purchaser and the seller by acting as a trusted middleman in exchange for a commission fee.

Bitcoin exchanges are conducted using anonymous account numbers,  much like Swiss bank accounts but with more cloaking. These anonymous account numbers are what we call your bitcoin 'wallet',  which is specialized software you install.

Remember: bitcoin is an unregulated currency. If you feel defrauded or dishonestly treated in a financial transaction, you cannot go to a bank and ask for them to refund your money.  Once bitcoin money has traded hands, it cannot be electronically reversed.

Escrow Middleman Helps Keep Trading Honest

Escrow middlemen
Escrow middlemen help keep dark websites honest. McCaig / Getty

Escrow services:  escrow is when a middleman acts as a trusted go-between. The escrow service verifies that the buyer truly has the money available to pay, and holds those funds temporarily. The escrow service communicates this to the seller, then waits to verify that the product has actually been shipped to the customer before releasing those funds to the seller.

Escrow services are sometimes provided by the darknet marketplace itself  (e.g. the 'Nucleus' darknet site promises escrow and dispute-resolution services to all its clients). There are also third-party escrow services, like TorEscrow.

How Does Delivery of Contraband Work?

How Dark Web Contraband Delivery Works
Dark Web: contraband delivery. Chutka / Getty

Just like a package from Amazon, Darknet contraband goods are delivered via regular post or courier shipping services. Yes, that means weapons and narcotics arrive in much the same way as that purchased pair of blue jeans. The risk revolves around your Darknet purchase being identified by law enforcement. This risk varies substantially from place to place, as jurisdictions around the world observe different laws around inspecting and opening parcels.

In the USA, post and shipping services use a combination of x-rays, sniffing dogs, and visual inspection to identify contraband. Should your incoming contraband package become identified and be considered serious enough for police to investigate, the authorities may assign an undercover agent to deliver the package to you, and elicit statements from you to admit knowledge of the parcel's contents.

There is definitely a risk of getting caught receiving contraband. Should your parcel be seized by law enforcement, but you escape prosecution, then you can call on your escrow service to have the seller send another identical package, or refund your money. If the police catch you and charge you with contraband infractions, then you hopefully have a really good lawyer.

You can read more about the legalities of shipping and receiving contraband here . 

How Do I Get Onto the Darknet?

The Dark Web Is Both Sanctuary and Black Market
The Dark Web Is Both Sanctuary and Black Market. Coneyl Jay / Getty

While does not condone the buying and selling of contraband, we do support the civic freedoms of democracy and online expression.  

To access the TOR Onion network, there is a browser tutorial available here.

To find the various websites and services on the Darknet, you'll need to exert yourself and do some research. Here are 3 subreddit pages that will help you get started finding Darknet services.

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