Photo credit: Philip Gao Photography
I must say, it’s always interesting (and enlightening) to meet people who actually know their stuff when it comes to the dark web. Not long ago, on Twitter, I had that opportunity.
Eileen Ormsby, the Melbourne-based author of Silk Road and All Things VICE, was the perfect person to talk to regarding the ins and outs of the dark web in all its shady glory. According to her, her interest in the dark web emerged as a result of doing research for the Silk Road book, and eventually led to the creation of the blog.
Given that I, too, am aiming to find the truth about the dark web amongst all the disinformation, it seems that Ormsby and I have something in common. We even touched on my “favorite” dark web myth, red rooms!
Secrets of the Dark: What were your initial experiences on the dark web? Did you use Tor or some other service?
Eileen Ormsby: Yes, started with Tor and, specifically, Silk Road. It was some time in 2011 when a friend who was using it showed it to me. Instant fascination!
The original Silk Road Marketplace
SoTD: You have interviewed a number of individuals who are involved in various aspects of the dark web. Which interviews did you find to be the most informative or interesting?
EO: Probably the most interesting for me was my interview with the administrators of Atlantis when they were trying to break Silk Road’s stranglehold on the darknet markets. They contacted me and asked for the interview – in fact, several times before I agreed to do it. They’d been asking whether I would carry their paid advertising (no) and then were always sending me snippets of news to put on my blog. They sent me previews of their infamous Youtube commercial before it was put on. They were really marketing hard, desperate to get some sort of good publicity because Silk Road monopolised the market and their customers were a really strong, loyal fanbase. Nobody trusted Atlantis, even though they offered a smoother interface, lower commissions and better customer service.
Eventually I agreed I would interview them provided it would be real-time, candid and I would not make it positive if I didn’t feel it should be. I agreed to give them a hearing and be fair. It was all done over real-time encrypted chat (I think it was cryptocat, which is now defunct after being proven to be not that crypto after all!) [actually, it’s back up again! – ed.].
It lasted several hours and I did, indeed, feel it was candid. I think they were trying to make a better market, but it failed because of distrust among DNM users and loyalty to Silk Road.
Other than that, I interviewed or engaged with most of the staff of Silk Road from time to time, including [Dread Pirate Roberts] 1&2 and still remain in contact with several of them to this day – the difference being that I now know the real identities of many of them! I was in constant email contact with Peter Nash, the Australian moderator, during his time in prison in the US and served as his communication to the outside. He gave me an awesome interview when he got out.
SoTD: What are some of the urban legends and dubious information that, in your experience, continue to pass around about the dark web? (e.g. hitmen services, red rooms, bizarre things for sale)
EO: The one that is most persistent is the myth of the “Red Room” – live streaming of torture/rape that ends in the murder of the victim and which people can pay to watch, or even bid to type in commands for the torturer to carry out (highest bid wins!). People have this idea of Hostel with webcams exist[ing] all over the dark web, but you just need an invite to get into them. It’s ridiculous. They don’t exist. They certainly wouldn’t exist on Tor. But people are desperate to believe and they always come back with “You can’t prove they don’t exist, people are crazy, therefore they must exist.” Picture my eyes rolling here.
I don’t think many people are taken in by the hitmen sites anymore, though the press loves playing up the fact that there are sites offering up hitman services. And of course, after the Ross Ulbricht trial, people kept pointing to his alleged attempts to have hits carried out as pointing to him trying to use ‘hitman sites,’ which wasn’t the case at all.
People are always asking where they can find markets for exotic animals. Obviously the illegal trade in exotic animals exists, and some communications and transactions may well take place over Tor, but there are no markets like the drug markets where you can go and look at a picture and then put a tiger or ocelot or something into your basket and buy it with bitcoin.
SoTD: Have you used networks other than Tor to explore the dark web? (e.g. I2P, Freenet, GNUnet, Netsukuku) If so, how did the experience compare?
Nerdageddon on Freenet
EO: I used I2P and Freenet back in the beginning when I was researching the dark web in general, but they just weren’t as user-friendly as Tor and didn’t have the user base.
SoTD: What kind of research did you do when writing your book Silk Road (beyond just visiting the website itself)? What did you discover in the process?
EO: In a lot of ways, I didn’t do any research at all. I was in there from the early days, an active part of the community. I spent part of pretty much every single day in there for two years. I got involved in stuff. I spoke to people, sometimes they came to me with their stories. It was totally organic.
As well as the ground-level stuff, I got involved with a lot of the academics involved in researching cryptomarkets. Dr. Monica Barratt was one of the first – we’re still friends today – and she has probably done more rigorous academic analysis of the darknet markets than just about anyone in the world. Nicolas Cristin was another one who could be counted on for impartial analysis. There’s now a large circle of people involved in cryptomarket research and we have a very cool private forum where we share stuff.
SoTD: Have you found that you needed to increase your knowledge of internet security in order to research networks like Tor (i.e. to protect yourself and your identity)?
EO: Well, I’ve always hidden in plain sight. Once I came out on Silk Road, I used the name OzFreelancer everywhere on the dark web. Everyone knew who I was. I always thought being up front about who I was to be the best way. Of course I have second logins for everything under different names, but they are usually for lurking rather than contributing.
The one thing I’ve found invaluable and that everyone – not just journos or DNM users but everyone – should take the time to learn is PGP. It is the one thing we can still count on.
SoTD: On your blog All Things VICE, you seem to get a lot of comments from the owner(s) of the Besa Mafia website; do you have any inside information as to what the truth is about the site? Is it a scam, honeypot, or what?
EO: LOL, yes I have inside information which I can’t go into detail about at the moment, but it will all come out at some point. Yes, they are a scam, but a very successful one – they have stooged a lot of people out of money.
Besa Mafia’s website
SoTD: In spite of the negative attention that darknet markets have received, do you think that they have any positive aspects?
EO: The drug markets certainly do. They offer a safer alternative for people who are going to do drugs anyway. There is no possibility of any violence. The vast majority of the time a buyer knows exactly what they are getting, because of the feedback and rating system – if someone is selling 25i as acid or pipes as ecstasy, they will very quickly be called out for it and their ratings will plummet. That’s not the case in a nightclub, or even friends-of-friends, where you just blindly accept that pill, powder or tab is what the seller says it is.
SoTD: Have you explored some of the darknet markets that are still in business, such as Alphabay, Dream Market, Valhalla, Python Market, or Hansa Market? If yes, what was the experience like?
EO: Yes, all of them. And they are boring. Which is exactly what a market should be to stay in business. One of Ross Ulbricht’s biggest mistakes was being too damn interesting and developing a cult following. It really got up the nose of the TLAs and they threw a ridiculously disproportionate number of resources into tracking him down and prosecuting him. There’s been several markets far larger than Silk Road ever was, but law enforcement just don’t care (or at least don’t care enough) because they are quietly running as a commercial enterprise and don’t have any political or disruptive motivations. They certainly don’t have enigmatic leaders posting rousing calls to arms with devout followers drinking the Koolaid. None of us journos are writing about them much, so they are out of sight, out of mind for politicians.
I don’t mean to say that LE doesn’t still work on arresting DNM dealers and, where possible, closing the markets. It’s just that the political pressure to close them down is off.
Ross Ulbricht, a.k.a. Dread Pirate Roberts
SoTD: There are many, many so-called “horror stories” that pass around about the dark web; do you have any of your own to share from your research?
EO: Haha, none! I did get bombarded by the owner of Besa Mafia (hitman site) after my article about them, with emails telling me he knows where I live and was sending people around to “beat and rape” me, but I was never really worried that he would go through with it. My partner on the other hand gets nervous about what I do sometimes.
Of course, there’s been disturbing things. I attended the court hearings of people involved in hurtcore sites. I heard and saw things that I need to put in little compartments of my brain that I lock away and rarely visit. But never any of the creepypasta stuff people love to boast about on Reddit.
SoTD: Do you think that Tor is still a good tool for journalists to use, or as a privacy tool for people living under repressive regimes? (e.g. North Korea, ISIL)
EO: Absolutely. Every journo should have a working knowledge of Tor, VPNs and PGP. Especially PGP.
SoTD: Given that darknets and other privacy tools are still being developed, do you think that something else may eventually replace Tor?
EO: Yes. I’m not clever enough to know what though.
SoTD: Answer this question once and for all: is it called the “deep web” or the “dark web”? Or are they two entirely different things?
EO: They are two different things. You know when you hear that stuff about the deep web being 500x larger than the surface web? That’s true (well, I don’t know the exact figure – nobody does – but it is massively larger). But that is all boring stuff, being anything that’s not indexed by search engines. So anything behind a paywall, or password protected, backend stuff for companies, etc. The dark web is a very small part of the deep web. Teeny tiny. It is just a media-friendly way of saying Hidden Services.
I have to admit, I hate seeing people use “deep web” when they mean “dark web.”
Me too, Eileen! Me too. Well, I encourage you to check out All Things VICE.
And next time you hear some crazy rumors about the dark web…check there first.