The “deep web” is a slimy cave for geeks and ghouls, a place for drug peddlers and perverts to fester, away from the light of decent society. This is the narrative we hear, if we hear anything at all about the so-called deep web. But what exactly is this dangerous place? Is its only purpose to harbour criminals, or is another narrative left unspoken by mainstream media? By entering the deep web I thought I would witness the darkest underbelly of humanity, the sin that surfaces when all of the lights go out. I was right. But I didn’t realize that experiencing this secret side of society would shake my ideology, leaving me to question the meaning of the word freedom, and how much I’m willing to pay for it.
The world is a dark and dangerous place, full of people lurking in shadows waiting to steal your kidneys.
I heard this story a few times growing up. My uncle Karl, leaning in the kitchen doorway slurping a Budweiser through his goatee, would hoarsely declare that someone, somewhere was waking up in a motel ice bath with their kidneys missing, kidneys that would be sold on the black market. One thing my childhood taught me is the value of a good kidney.
The black market had an elusive mystique for me growing up. I imagined James Bond meandering through an empty alleyway, moonlight reflected in the wet pavement. He pushes aside a dumpster covering a hole in the back wall, drops down, and enters a sprawling marketplace full of steam and shady characters; kidneys hang from metal stalls like chicken. I never questioned what these people wanted with all of these kidneys. I figured it had to do with kidney stones or some other adult mystery; adults knew everything.
Today, rumours of a new enigmatic underground are being whispered behind closed doors. They’re calling it the deep web — an unsanctioned internet where anonymity is sacrosanct and anything goes. Picture an apocalyptic cyberspace, impenetrable by the authorities, lurking just below the surface of our computer screens.
If it truly exists, this shady underworld of black market kidney stalls, then I feel obligated to see it for myself. My investigation of the deep web begins like any oblivious layman’s: with a Google search.
The internet most people use every day, websites like Google and Facebook, comprises less than one per cent of the information available on the web, according to CNN article, The Deep Web You Don’t Know About, by Jose Pagliery. This one percent is referred to as the surface web. The other 99 per cent is buried beneath that surface. This can be anything from emails to political chat rooms to websites selling computer hacking software, and much more.
You access the hidden part of the web by downloading a search engine called TOR. TOR was designed for the U.S. government; it works by bouncing your IP address to different locations around the globe, creating multiple protective layers of encryption on your computer’s IP address. TOR is actually a stripped-down version of Firefox; aesthetically, it’s like an old ‘90s search engine.
Accessing this part of the internet is no joke. The FBI, law enforcements, ISP (internet service provider), and other government agencies are tracking people who use TOR, especially those who use it to access the shady areas of the deep web, areas known as the “dark web.” I decided to take my anonymity very seriously. I stretched the waistband of an old pair of boxer-briefs over the top of my computer screen to cover the camera, plugged the microphone port with toilet paper, took a deep breath and dove down the rabbit hole.
There are thousands of online marketplaces in the deep web / dark web. They function similar to eBay, with numerous categories for every kind of drug, from hash to pure liquid Krokodil (AKA the zombie drug), weapons, fake passports, stolen credit card information, and even assassins. There are websites allowing access to hacked computer webcams, pirated media, or illegal pornography.
I clicked a web-link that brought me to an independent website created for one solitary video. The screen was black, with no title or synopsis, only a white play arrow. A close up shot of a woman’s face filled the screen. Something felt disturbing about her, the eyes were lifeless, but she blinked and looked side to side. I realized it was CGI, not a real person, but it looked so damn convincing. “I won’t tell you my name,” she said. Her voice was soft and feminine, but choppy, and I realized that it was computer-generated also. “I need to tell someone about my job.” The creator of this obscure video diary works as a media screener for Vimeo. She filters submissions to the Vimeo website, flagging inappropriate footage. Media screening is a common job for people in poor countries such as India and Bangladesh. The videos these poor people are subjected to are horrific; many media screeners suffer PTSD and are paid slave wages.
I soon discovered another side of the deep web. There is a thriving community of political dissidents and activists in this secretive part of the internet. Innumerable messaging boards with thousands of participants speaking passionately about various political and philosophical topics. “These forums are a better community than I’ve ever seen in real life,” says “X,” a vendor on a massive online drug market known as “The Silk Road.” “Sure there are illegal things going on, but this is a place of discussion for like-minded people.”
Discussions on these forums range from the war on drugs, to political corruption, to human rights. People from dictatorships such as China and North Korea come to this part of the internet to speak freely about their country, without fear of being monitored. Syrian journalists use the deep web every day to hide their actions from Syria’s corrupt regime. WikiLeaks accepts submission of hacked and secret information directly from the deep web. Many users express the sentiment that humanity is in a direct and ongoing battle with overwhelming scrutiny and surveillance from the government, and to them anonymity in the deep web is a defence against total state control — think George Orwell, ***1984. They seem to have a fairly convincing argument.
Every time you use the internet, your information is logged by your service provider (Google, let’s say), collected, and sold to marketers and corporations, resulting in online advertisements tailored to your preferences. Edward Snowden, the notorious whistleblower, revealed that governments have long had the ability to monitor conversations using a smartphone’s microphone, even when the phone is turned off. Some may argue that this lack of privacy provides security, but at what cost?
I closed my TOR browser and pulled the toilet paper out of the microphone jack. It was the early hours of the morning; I had spent all night researching political dissidents and reading deep web forums. Autumn moonlight slipped through my back wall window, permeating the air with ghosts. My underwear hung across the top of the monitor, and I hesitated before tugging it off.
The tiny camera lens peered unblinkingly above the computer’s glow. I folded it silently shut and was alone in the darkness.
What is freedom? We live in a time that is caught between two ideologies. Some desire security, freedom from the rot that blisters in the dark corners of humanity, but to achieve it, they sacrifice their identity to the powers that be. People willingly submit to state control, hoping to be groomed and well kept. Others fight for privacy, freedom from government mastery and Big Brother’s watchful eye, but this plight for the privilege of secrecy comes with its own dire consequences. An anonymous internet provides a haven for criminals and pedophiles.
Perhaps there is a third option: We live our lives. The dark web is a pock on society, but if the alternative is not having a secret space for the underclass to speak truth to power and shine light on the treacheries of our governance, then I don’t know if it’s worth fighting against. Perhaps the dark web is a necessary evil, or perhaps it’s simply evil. It’s up to each of us to have our own ideology, and to live accordingly. As for me, I deleted TOR from my computer. I have no desire to return to that cave and visit those ghouls, but I like knowing that they’re out there, just below the surface of our everyday lives, engaging in cyber warfare for what they believe in, fighting for their sense of freedom, and for ours.
“Non-conformity is the only real passion worth being ruled by.” – Julian Assange, creator of WikiLeaks