When storming through the Ethernet cable and into government servers to pilfer top secret documents, hacker groups need a place to lay low after doing it “for teh lulz”, in order to plan their next mission without being spied on by the authorities. So where do they go when the work is done?
The truth is it’s a place shared with arms dealers, terrorists, and drug traffickers. A secretive fold within the internet where you can anonymously buy automatic machine-guns and kilos of cocaine using an electical currency known as Bitcoin that no government in the land can regulate, all via ecommerce sites such as “Silk Road” and “The Armoury”.
Welcome to the world of the Dark Web...
I’ve managed to access the Dark Web to see what can really be purchased on the notorious Silk Road website. Various British broadsheets have been recently hammering home the idea that it’s an Amazon for criminals, but whilst that's true to a degree, there's much more to it than that. Silk Road is a virtual black market with a community made up of of lunatics, gun enthusiasts, libertarians, drug users, arms dealers and, to be honest, some very interesting people.
Getting in is not the easiest thing to do, but you don’t need to be anywhere near as tech savvy as some papers might have you believe (the Times even claimed they needed an IT expert to get in). At school I spent IT lessons trying not to get caught playing browser based video games—I managed to access Silk Road in about 15 minutes.
Silk Road is a virtual black market with a community made up of of lunatics, gun enthusiasts, libertarians, drug users, arms dealers and, to be honest, some very interesting people.
Firstly you have to download a program called Tor (The onion router), which basically opens the gateway into this untraceable internet-within-the-internet that is the Dark Web. The Tor client allows you to stay hidden in a virtual secret hideout by relaying its traffic through network upon network of servers situated all over the world, bouncing your false location from one country to the next. This apparently makes it almost impossible to trace the user’s true location and identity and was created specifically for this purpose—anonymous web browsing (Tor is used most importantly by countries living under rule of tyrannical dictatorships). The tragic irony of Tor is that the US Navy actually funded the project in its infancy, but now the FBI is trying to shut it down...
After finding the .onion Dark Web address for Silk Road, I typed it into the browser Tor opens up once it’s loaded, and hit enter.
At first you’re greeted with an almost blank webpage with a few boxes on it and a captcha. It's seems pretty cryptic but it's actually quite straightforward. I signed up as Cult Leader (as you do) and was instantly given access to Silk Road and all of its illegal glory.
Aesthetically, Silk Road looks like something you could create using Notepad and a fairly vague knowledge of HTML. This just adds to the intrigue of it though—it's like the online equivalent of stumbling upon an underground clandestine chemistry lab. It doesn't take long to see the appeal of Silk Road for so many of its users (reports suggest this number is likely in the hundreds of thousands). You can buy everything from genuine British passports, crystal meth and C4 explosives, to lock picks, .999 gold bullion bars, and flick knives disguised as house keys—all without stepping foot outside onto the street. Being a fully online service gives customers the reassurance that they’re not going to get bashed over the head and left with their pockets turned out upon purchase, which is most likely a big part of why Silk Road is so successful.
You can buy everything from genuine British passports, crystal meth and C4 explosives to lock picks, 999 gold bullion bars and flick knives disguised as house keys.
To start off my criminal shopping spree, I browsed Silk Road’s weapons site: “The Armoury”. Here vendors are selling mostly guns and ammunition such as a Polish "self-assemble" AK47 machine gun for 207 Bitcoins, which is roughly £640 in the current market (the value of Bitcoin fluctuates massively though, as its value is based on the amount of transactions its used in).
But amongst the Glock 19 handguns and endless rounds of Luger ammunition, was something quite special—two kilos of C4 plastic explosives, priced at about £66. This was on sale from a guy who claims, in his own words, to be “pretty big in black marketing” in New Zealand. I messaged him asking if there was any way to obtain more than the measly two kilos on offer. The conversation is as follows [only the spelling has been corrected]:
Me: I was just wondering if there would ever be a possibility of buying C4 in bulk, as opposed to just 6lbs worth?
C4 salesman: Yeah sure, I have another buyer looking at 25lbs though, so it may take a bit longer for yours to arrive. How much do you need? I am willing to lower the price per pound on a larger purchase.
Something like 100 lbs, how long would that take? Is it genuine C4 though? Like proper explosives?
Shit that's loads... you taking out China? I would suggest an a-bomb instead. No but that is a lot of C4! What the fuck are you trying to do? I won't tell the cops or anything, I'd be put away for life. It's genuine, at that much I'll chuck in some free blasting caps and detonation cord.
Between me and you, I'm preparing for the zombie apocalypse. It's coming bro... it's coming.
I dunno if you’re serious, but either way, sure, go ahead and spend shitloads of money on C4. Also, the best way to take out zombies (in my opinion) is making a pool-like moat around your house filled with sludge: 1 part water, 1 part sugar and 1 part salt. It will destroy the flesh (optional). Also keep a machete, a crowbar, a handmade wooden shield or a hubcap, fly spray (they may carry disease, if that's the cause of the zombies, and it is highly toxic/flammable stuff), matches, canned beans, a flare gun (optional), a parachute for escapes when you are cornered at a height, rotten meat as a distraction, and a cyanide pill because you don't wanna die by being ripped apart. A cyanide pill is better (I can actually supply cyanide). I made the list myself, but I'm keeping it because it’s actually quite good. Bullets will just go through them, don't even bother.
After shooting the bull with the C4 salesman I browsed the rest of his goods, which included blowpipe tranquilliser darts, 50ml of Chloroform, a Yugoslavian M59 assault rifle and even a guide on “How to Make Someone Feel Bad” with the description: “I count this under weaponry as it is an attack on the mind”. Nice guy.
Back on Silk Road I headed to the drugs section of the site, which is generally considered the main attraction and seems to be the most lucrative for merchants by far. Here you can purchase pure Afghan heroin for $255 a gram, crystal cocaine flakes straight from South America, and every kind of meth-amphetamine, hallucinogen and prescription drug you can imagine. All of which is sent through the post and via airmail to anywhere in the world. If customs cotton on then your package will of course be destroyed, but for the thousands of nondescript Silk Road packages that do get past them (vendors even share "stealth" packaging techniques), it's the perfect drug dealing home delivery service.
"That is a lot of C4! What the fuck are you trying to do? I won't tell the cops or anything, I'd be put away for life."
Despite the outrage in the media, Silk Road is actually doing drug users a good service. Out in the real world, where criminals will jab a needle in your neck for a bag of pennies, or cut their pills with everything from crushed glass to rat poison, you can never accurately gauge a drug dealer's reputation. There's no star rating or Amazon review for the guy slinging crack on the corner. So having this site, where people can now actually see how good a Silk Road dealer’s product is by checking their ratings from previous customers, could in theory mean the difference between dying from a dodgy pill or having a great time on some "A+" DMT. And if the worst comes to the worst and the drug vendor does somehow manage to turn on you, a computer virus and some stolen Bitcoins is a lot less painful than a chest full of burning shotgun pellets and your flat turned over...
As helpful as this ratings system might be to customers though, it's actually one of the most sobering factors of Silk Road. Here you can see serious drug addicts rating their last purchase of heroin or Oxycontin or worse. Comments like “great hit, knocked me straight out!” and “this shit is so good I pissed myself after one bowl” are alarming, especially when only a link away from clean syringes and guides on how to chase the dragon.
As much as the wannabe outlaw in me finds the idea of Silk Road quite exciting, the truth is that the guns sold on this site could be used to kill innocent people, and the drugs could be reaching some kid who might not have ever known how to get hold of them, had he not gained access to Silk Road. Then again, it could also be saving the lives of addicts that rely on the high purity and anonymous interactions of Silk Road's drug market, compared to the diluted, sometimes deadly, concoctions that the street has to offer.
But it boils down to more than crack rocks, bullets and home-made LSD tabs. Silk Road is an inevitable 21st century creation—guns, drugs and counterfeits are everywhere, but for some reason people are shocked that they’re now on the internet as well.