Accessing the Dark Web? You’ll need Tor

For anyone to access the dark web, a special type of software and web browser is required. The most well-known and frequently-used software is the Tor browser, which stands for The Onion Router. Tor protects the anonymity of its users by using multiple layers of encryption.

Keep in mind, the dark web is not the same thing as the deep web. Both aren’t indexed by search engines, but the dark web requires specific web browsers with encrypted IP addresses.

Tor’s secretive sites end in .onion. Also known as Tor hidden services, .onion sites can’t be accessed with any other type of web browser.

1990s: Creation of Onion Routing

Dark web history is packed with government influence. “Onion routing” – the core principle that enables Tor to retain its users’ anonymity – was developed and funded in the mid-1990s by the U.S. federal government.

Onion routing was created to protect individuals in the intelligence community by allowing them to communicate anonymously.  It also served to protect whistleblowers, allow freedom of thought and expression for citizens and journalists who lived under oppressive regimes, and kept many others out of danger by protecting their anonymity. Even today, it still serves that same purpose for many people around the world.

Onion routing was first developed at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory by scientists Paul Syverson, David Goldschlag, and Michael Reed. The project’s development continued through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) until the U.S. Navy patented onion routing in 1998.

2002 – 2006: Origins of the Tor Project

After onion routing was patented, additional computer scientists joined the original development team in 2002 and created the biggest project for onion routing yet: The Onion Routing Project, now commonly known as the Tor Project.

The Navy would later release the code for Tor under a free license. Then in 2006, several of the same scientists who developed Tor founded the Tor Project, a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization. The Tor Project maintains the software and browser of the same name and still receives funding from the U.S. government.

Current and past sponsors of the Tor Project include multiple branches of the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense, as well as governments of other modernized countries, human rights foundations, and many others. These sponsors fund the Tor Project because they believe it helps protect advocates of democracy in authoritarian states.

The Tor Project maintains that while it accepts federal funding, the organization does not worked with the NSA to reveal the identities of any of its users.

Early 2000s – Present: Tor’s Illegal Uses

While Tor (and similar dark web software/browsers) have uses that keep people safe, the anonymity that it provides can be exploited for criminal purposes.

The dark web created a unique opportunity for digital black markets to thrive, and people began to take advantage. The transactions on the dark web are often carried out with Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, which are unregulated and difficult to trace back to the user.

These transactions can range from drug and weapon purchases to illicit pornography and even have been used in human trafficking. While new hidden services frequently pop up, law enforcement agencies continually work to bust these dark marketplaces. Even though Tor is known for keeping its users anonymous, when these sites become big enough, law enforcement will almost always find a way to infiltrate it.

One particularly infamous example of this is the story of Ross Ulbricht and the Silk Road – the story that caused many people to hear about the dark web for the first time.

February 2011: Ross Ulbricht Creates the Silk Road Marketplace

“I created Silk Road because I thought the idea for the website itself had value, and that bringing Silk Road into being was the right thing to do. I believed at the time that people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else… Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue their own happiness, however they individually saw fit.”

– Excerpt from Ross Ulbricht’s letter to Judge Katherine Forrest prior to his sentencing

The Silk Road was essentially a dark web marketplace for drugs. Users could buy their products with Bitcoin and even leave ratings and reviews to inform other buyers of safety, quality, etc. Think eBay but untraceable.

The marketplace was created by Ulbricht, known as Dread Pirate Roberts on the site. He was a 26-year-old fresh out of Penn State University with a master’s degree in materials science and engineering. Over the course of his days as a graduate student, he developed a strong interest and belief in libertarian philosophy and economic theory.

Following his graduation, he was unsatisfied with a regular day job. He had entrepreneurial aspirations, but his legitimate attempts at reaching these goals continually fell through. That’s when Ulbricht decided he would reach his goals in a way aligned with his ideologies that people should be able to buy and sell whatever they wanted. That’s when he conceived the Silk Road.

Ulbricht believed people should have the freedom to sell and purchase the products that they desired, despite their illegality, so long as they were not causing harm to anyone else. The way he saw it, he was setting up a truly free market that was safe from the grasp of law enforcement – a haven for users to buy what they wanted, when they wanted it, anonymously. Though it should be noted that the sale of any product used to “harm or defraud” another individual was strictly prohibited.

June 2011: The Silk Road Gains Popularity

Using the Tor network as the anonymous marketplace and Bitcoin as the medium of exchange, the Silk Road became a one-stop shop for just about every mind-altering substance that exists. The hidden service gained traction in 2011 and then hit the mainstream when a Gawker article about the site was published.

By this time, it had caught the attention of customers, law enforcement, and politicians. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, called for an investigation by federal authorities including the DEA and Department of Justice to shut the site down.

From 2011 to 2013, the Silk Road hosted 1.2 million transactions between 957,079 users, totaling about $1.2 billion in value.

According to the FBI, Dread Pirate Roberts earned $79.8 million in commission from all of the transactions. (Ulbricht claims he sold the site to someone else and was no longer Dread Pirate Roberts at the time of his arrest and subsequent conviction.)

2013: The End of the Silk Road

Authorities were able to trace the pseudonym back to Ulbricht thanks to the efforts of an IRS investigator who was working with the DEA on the Silk Road case in mid-2013.

With a mix of infiltration, social engineering, and many hours of investigative work, authorities were able to discover Ulbricht’s true identity. He was arrested in San Francisco, where his seized laptop provided ample evidence that he was the mastermind behind the Silk Road.

He was charged with money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. It was alleged he offered a total of $700,000 for hitmen services to take out people who were trying to blackmail him, but he was never charged for these allegations for lack of sufficient evidence.

Throughout his trial, Ulbricht’s lawyers maintained that he was no longer the individual in control of Dread Pirate Roberts and had been set up as a fall guy. The judge ruled that any “speculative statements” claiming that Ulbricht was no longer in charge of the Silk Road would not be allowed and were to be removed from the record of the case, despite the fact that the account had been accessed while he was incarcerated and awaiting his trial.

May 2015: Ulbricht is Sentenced

On May 29, 2015, Ulbricht was sentenced to two life terms plus 40 years without the possibility of parole.

He serves as a cautionary tale of placing too much faith in the ability to remain anonymous in the dark corners of the web. He and his family continue to fight what they see as an unjust sentence. Many individuals (including the creator of Silk Road 2.0) were convicted of similar crimes and received sentences of less than 10 years.

The Markets that Followed

After Silk Road’s seizure, many similar sites followed in its place, and still do today. Many of the original copycat markets were seized soon after Silk Road, only to be replaced again. It would appear for now, as long as the demand and technology exist, new dark marketplaces will continue to be created to replace the ones that authorities manage to shut down.