What Is the Darknet?

It's more than just porn, and it's past time that the good guys understand that

By Elijah Woodward  |   Sep 29, 2015

[Author’s Note: There are two things I want to emphasize with this article. First, the internet is good for much more than porn. I often hear that joke (and it may be true?) but there’s a whole lot more criminal activity going on out there that local law enforcement can have an effect on. But we don’t do more about it because we don’t know and most don’t care. Those are lousy excuses. We can do better.

Second, I often run up against a bias that hold that this stuff is too technical and painful to work with. It really isn’t. Watch three YouTube videos where a 14-year-old explains this stuff to you, and you’re now the most highly trained expert in your department. Seriously, it’s just that easy.]

Recently the Ashley Madison data breach raised a bunch of questions. The biggest one that people were asking is, “What is the darknet?” That nebulous dark region where stolen data gets trafficked, along with just about everything else evil you can imagine and some evil you’d rather not imagine (seriously)?

Origins

When people talk about darknet stuff they’re usually referring to Tor—The Onion Router. (It has layers … like an onion.)

Like the plot to any bad science fiction movie, the darknet started off as a government creation. This creation would grow up, and come back to haunt the government. The seed for the Tor project was planted two decades ago, and it’s still developed and modified to this day. Tor was originally designed to protect communications during intelligence activities by making them really, really anonymous and impossible to trace. Which makes sense, if, for hypothetical example, you have an Iranian Air Force Colonel feeding you information: You really don’t want that guy getting caught and want to keep him safe from anyone reading his web traffic.

Hence, the goal of Tor is anonymity.

How Does It Work?

Plenty of literature exists out there on the nitty gritty technical details, so I will spare you the minutia. Basically what you need to know is that it sets up a protected link between you and the stuff you’re looking at. It also bounces the traffic around the internet to a ton of different places before spitting out the traffic on the other side.

And all those different layers of connections are where we get the onion term. Makes sense now, huh?

Where Can I Get It? 

You can actually go download Tor right now. Start here and click on “Download Tor.”

Note: There are lots of folks out there who know how to use Tor better than you and me, so until you do a lot more education about this service, I wouldn’t recommend you just hop on. This article is not enough. Period. If you’re serious about getting in to it, go take a class at your local community college. That’s what I ended up doing, and it’s only the beginning.

Tor will then open up a browser based on Mozilla’s Firefox and you can begin visiting various sites. From there you can visit sites that are called “.onion” sites. They’re called that because they have “.onion” in the name. On a side note, you can see by screen capture that it’s warning me that my browser is out of date. NEVER use an out of date browser! Use the most updated browser and downloads possible.

Now since Tor isn’t like the regular internet, we can’t just hop on Google and find “darknet criminal forums.” To find a list of .onion sites, a good starting point is Pastebin.com.

Once at Pastebin, go to the search box and type in “.onion” and sort by date. Now you should see something like this:

From there you have a decent list of sites that may (or may not) be active still since .onion sites tend come and go really quickly. Additional reading sources include the Hidden Wiki and the Reddit board about darknets.

Note: DO NOT CLICK unless you have a thick skin and you’re not afraid to be a bit offended. Hidden Wiki has links to various child porn sites, and Reddit has open discussions about how to traffic narcotics via the internet and U.S. postal system–among others.

But the darknet is good for a whole lot more than just child porn, regular porn, and drugs.

What if you were in espionage and could buy government secrets for sale?

What if you needed to hire the skills of a retired 21-year U.S. military sniper who actively plotted to kill DEA agents for money?

What if you needed to hire a hacker to do your dirty work for you?

The darknet is your place!

In the 21st century crime isn’t an exclusively brick-and-mortar enterprise. It’s on the Internet, and it’s nasty. That’s where the good guys need to be too.

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Elijah Woodward
Elijah Woodward is the owner of SavageCyberSpace.com, a security consulting company focusing on information and cyber security as well as physical security. He has 10 years of law enforcement experience working in patrol, motors, and community resources. He is a member of the FBI’s InfraGard program, and the High Technology Crime Investigator’s Association. Elijah believes that law enforcement is in a prime position to address the issues of cyber crime and fraud, and it will be cops at the local level who will have the greatest impact on these new crimes as they continue to plague our communities. Reach him at Elijah@CalibrePress.com.