At 3pm on October 1, 2013, the then-29-year-old self-styled entrepreneur and investment advisor Ross Ulbricht was spending an otherwise uneventful afternoon browsing San Francisco’s Glen Park Library. By 3:15pm, he was in FBI custody, accused of running a black market website known as the Silk Road, which had generated more than $1.2 billion in revenue in just two years.
How, you ask? Selling heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, and practically every other illegal drug on the planet to over 1 million users via a shadowy, anonymous part of the Internet known as the Deep Web.
Okay, not “part” of the Internet -- it’s more like the majority. The Deep Web occupies roughly 96% of the entire Internet, and you can't find any of it using a standard search engine. So what the hell goes on in the deep depths of the Internet that Google can’t show you?
You probably used it several times today
Since the Silk Road bust, the Deep Web has been cast as some nefarious digital wasteland where basement-dwellers go to buy drugs, hire hitmen, and exchange kiddie porn. And sure, that’s not entirely untrue, but there’s plenty more to it than what made headlines.
In fact, if you’ve ever checked your bank account online or composed a message in Gmail, you’ve been on the Deep Web.
If you think of the Internet as we know it, or the “surface web” -- Google, Wikipedia, this website, and most others you visit every day -- as the Milky Way galaxy, the Deep Web is what makes up the rest of the Internet universe. What's in it? Academic databases, government records, personnel files, internal corporate networks, and your own private accounts protected by a log-in (e.g., your bank account). Plus, a huge chunk of unique URLs containing complex scientific data collected by the likes of NASA that would be indecipherable by you or I.
But then, things get dark
An even tinier blip in this Internet universe is where you'll find the Dark Web, which was home to the Silk Road. Silk Road may have been shuttered by the feds (and Ulbricht sentenced to life in prison) but other even more heinous sites continue to thrive.
Using special browsers that cloak their IP addresses, anyone can gain access to these sites and buy every illegal item under the sun. Drugs are just the tip of the iceberg. Guns, sex slaves, assassins, stolen credit cards, passports, horrific pornography -- there are black markets lurking for all of them.
Of course these sites aren’t dumb enough to incriminate themselves with standard payment methods. Instead, they keep transactions anonymous using Bitcoin. In fact, the Dark Web is such a flourishing community of Bitcoin users that when Silk Road shut down, the cryptocurrency temporarily dropped $500 million in value.
NASA wants to make it searchable
By nature, all of this content (good and bad) is unsearchable, but NASA and DARPA are out to change that. The two agencies have been working together on a project known as Memex, which would essentially serve as a search engine for everything on the Deep Web. It would make it easier for citizens and scientists alike to dig up data sent back from spacecraft, which is a big part of what’s floating around in there. And while it will be helpful in that regard, it’s already been used to comb the worst corners of the Dark Web to catch human traffickers.
But currently, the guaranteed anonymity also makes it a haven for less-than-evildoers, including dissidents and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden who rely on the Deep Web to safely pass information to sources.
Go see for yourself... just don't do anything stupid
You’re welcome to scope things out, since it’s totally legal to access the Deep Web. All you need to do is download one of the specialized browsers, like Tor, which enable you to browse the encrypted sites anonymously by scrambling your IP address via a series of networked servers around the world.
Beware though: there are plenty of sites on the Dark Web that aren’t legal to access, and the NSA and other government agencies keep close tabs on what’s going on down there. Your identity can be easily tracked down if you make a wrong move in covering your tracks. But you’re not a sketchball looking to buy sex slaves online so you have nothing to worry about, right? Right?!?