the dark web

eileen ormsby is a freelance writer and journalist who blogs on all things vice and writes for such publications as the age and kill your darlings. she covers the underbelly of society and she’s here to speak with powder about the dark side of the web.     interview with i.t.a.

i’d like to welcome you to powder eileen... we definitely find your writing intriguing.

Thanks. I have a lot of fun writing it.

firstly, for readers that are unaware of the dark web, could you explain to us what it actually is?

In basic terms it’s a parallel internet that can’t be accessed by usual means. The dark web is one small part of the deep web, which is everything that is not indexed by search engines and is several times larger than the regular web. Once you download the proxy software – Tor, I2P or Freenet being the most common - you can visit sites you can’t normally get to, such as anonymous black markets.

Despite rumours to the contrary, there doesn't really seem to be any access to real-life Gladiator fights, legitimate contract killing services or live streaming of pay-per-view torture or snuff. There is, however, loads of child porn and other nasty stuff. And, of course, illegal commerce.

there are specific programs designed to access the dark web such as tor. can you tell us a little about how these operate? are they like a web browser? how do you find the sites on the dark web?

Tor was developed by the US military, from which it still receives most of its funding. It’s designed to allow people to browse and host sites anonymously and is used by dissidents or journalists in hostile regimes to allow them to obtain and disseminate information without fear of reprisal. Of course, like anything cool and useful, criminals hijack it for their own purposes.

Tor looks and acts like a normal but really slow web browser. As most dark web addresses are a string of random letters and numbers, you generally need to know the address of the specific site you want to visit. There are some gateway sites, such as Hidden Wiki and Evil Wiki, which contain links to the most popular sites, but these are susceptible to publishing phishing links. The only way to be really safe is to learn the URLs of the sites you want to visit and bookmark them or enter them manually.

one site that has been getting a lot of attention on the dark web is the silk road: a site that functions as a marketplace for buyers and sellers of illegal drugs. how long has the silk road been operating and how does the site work?

Silk Road has been around since January 2011, but exploded after Gawker published an article about it in June 2011. It is referred to in the media as either the ‘Amazon’ or ‘eBay’ of illicit drugs. Like eBay, Silk Road itself does not sell drugs. It just acts as a marketplace bringing buyers and sellers together. But there are no ‘auctions’ for drugs, so in that sense I guess it’s more like Amazon.

Vendors list their drugs, buyers place an order and the money goes into escrow – i.e. Silk Road holds onto it until the buyer confirms they have received the goods. The money is then released to the seller, less Silk Road’s commission.

how successful is the silk road?

It has been phenomenally successful. It’s gone from less than 100 listings a bit over 2 years ago to more than 7000 listings. Research by Carnegie Mellon University placed its turnover at $22m per year a while back, but I suspect it is now considerably higher than that.

The forums are lively and full of information and there are happy (and high) customers all over the world. It has withstood dDos attacks and infiltration attempts by law enforcement and keeps getting stronger.

what are the risks involved for people accessing and using this site?

Obviously users of the site face the risk of having their purchases detected in the mail, especially if buying from overseas and the goods are coming through Customs. The legal consequences for importing drugs are much harsher than regular possession charges. That said, it is pretty rare for things to get picked up and often for small, personal amounts, buyers will receive a ‘love letter’ from Customs, which doesn’t get followed up if they ignore it. There simply aren’t the resources to chase up every small-time purchase.

More common is the risk of getting ripped off. Like getting phished by following a dodgy link from another site – people have had their accounts cleaned out this way. And newbies who haven’t done their homework can get scammed quite easily. They are lured into not using the escrow service by bargain prices and lose their money when nothing is delivered. If they don't use the escrow service, Silk Road takes no responsibility and won't intervene on the dudded buyer's behalf.

dread pirate roberts is the mysterious figure who runs the silk road. can you tell us a little about his story or at least what is known of him?

Him/her/them… I don’t know any more than anyone else. The name is taken from a character in The Princess Bride who is revealed to be not one person but a succession of people who hand on the title once they have made enough money to retire. So it is possible the original DPR is not the same person who now owns Silk Road.

The public face of DPR is verbose and passionate, posting lengthy missives about the philosophy behind Silk Road and his agorist beliefs. Forbes Magazine recently pulled together a list of his best quotes and described him as “principled libertarian and cypherpunk in the same vein as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto”.

There is little doubt that the success of Silk Road is directly related to its founder. He engenders huge brand loyalty among his customers.

i read your piece which debunked the myth of the drug pusher. what is your view on the prohibitionist system? do you see it as effective?

Not only is prohibition not effective, the whole so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is immoral, supports organised crime and, like all wars, is responsible for thousands of pointless deaths every year. The policy of prohibition is taken completely from a moral stance and is not evidence-based at all.

It has also led to a plethora of ‘legal highs’ being developed. These are synthetics that supposedly mimic the effects of LSD, marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine. They are also killing people. We have decades of research into the original drugs and know almost everything there is to know about them, but these new research chemicals are almost completely untested on humans. They are being sold in nightclubs to unsuspecting punters as the real thing, but their side effects and consequences of overdose are different. They’re fucking evil and they exist as a direct result of the original drugs being illegal.

what would you suggest as an effective alternative to the system of drug prohibition?

My mantra is “Legislate, Regulate, Educate”. Most drug-related problems – deaths and crime - are caused by the fact drugs are illegal, rather than the drugs themselves. I would see all drugs legalized, though probably to different levels. The relatively safe drugs – such as ecstasy, weed and LSD – would be available much like alcohol and tobacco are now, whilst other drugs like heroin would be available in a clinical setting to registered addicts.

you’ve mentioned a new site, the atlantis marketplace, that has been set up as competition to the silk road. how successful have they been so far?

I suspect nowhere near as successful as I think they might have hoped. They haven’t had much luck luring customers away from Silk Road despite aggressive marketing, lower commissions and lower prices. People are suspicious of them and loyal to Dread Pirate Roberts.

But it’s early days yet. If Silk Road makes more mistakes and Atlantis proves itself safe and reliable, people will eventually drift that way.

when trading on the dark web people use the bitcoin digitalised currency. how does this alternative currency work? what of the creator satoshi nakamoto; who is he?

There are many people better placed than me to tell you how Bitcoin works – it’s pretty complicated. On a very basic level it is a borderless cryptocurrency that isn't subject to any pesky central regulation and can be acquired anonymously for use to purchase goods and services without leaving a digital trail.

Satoshi Nakomoto is the pseudonymous genius who invented the Bitcoin then quietly disappeared. Rumour has it that he owns an untouched Bitcoin wallet that was created from scratch and is now worth over $100m. There have been many investigations to try and uncover his true identity, but so far none have definitively unmasked him.

on a personal note what lead you down the path of all things vice?

There seemed to be a niche that needed to be filled of non-hysterical and intelligent reporting of what can be sensational topics. And hanging around the dark web can be both fascinating and disturbing.

and what’s preoccupying you in this direction at present?

I have a book deal with Pan MacMillan to write the Silk Road story, so I’m immersed in a world of interviews with some diverse and fascinating characters.

eileen thank you so much for filling us in here at powder on this digitalised underbelly. we look forward to reading your next piece on all things vice.

Thanks for having me :)