Is My Identity on the Dark Web?
(AARP) – Think of the internet as an ocean. At the top is the “surface web” and its familiar occupants like Google, CNN, Amazon, Yahoo and thousands of other public websites. The surface web is where the vast majority of people spend their internet time. All is public, all is searchable, and all is (mostly) friendly.
Go a little deeper, where the sunlight begins to fade away, and there is the “deep web.” It is much larger than the surface web but can only be accessed by individuals who have logins for the databases and websites here. Most of the activity is perfectly legal; it’s just not as easy for everyday folk like us to see. Some of the biggest sites here include the databases for NASA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Patent Office and private databases like LexisNexis and Westlaw. Traditional search engines can’t find these pages because they aren’t indexed like pages on the surface web; you need to know your destination and have an authorized password to get in.
Descend even further, to where there is no light and far fewer denizens, and there is the dark web (also called the “darknet”), a part of the deep web that is accessible only to those who use software called TOR, which stands for The Onion Router. Ironically, TOR software was developed by the U.S. Navy in the 1990s as a way to allow intelligence agents operating overseas to communicate anonymously with their colleagues here in the U.S. It was released as free, open software to the public in 2003, though government dollars continued to support its upkeep and growth.
The Onion Router got its name because all transmissions through it are anonymous: Messages are sent to multiple servers around the world to disguise the sender — kind of like layers of an onion. Search for information using TOR, and it takes several seconds to load, because your request travels tens of thousands of miles between all those servers before coming back to you. It’s perfect for preserving anonymity for political dissidents, journalists, spies and — as it turns out — criminals. TOR is free and available to anyone who wishes to download the appropriate software onto his or her computer.
Criminals have flocked to the dark web because it allows the buying and selling of illicit goods with total anonymity. The TOR browser hides users’ IP addresses, and transactions are usually conducted in a cryptocurrency like bitcoin to make them untraceable.
How big is the dark web? No one knows exactly. But consider AlphaBay, a site on the dark web that was taken down in July 2017 by the FBI. At its peak, AlphaBay had over 200,000 users and was taking in between $600,000 and $800,000 a day. The site’s founder, Alexandre Cazes, was arrested; eight days later he was found dead in his jail cell from an apparent suicide.
While most of the illegal traffic on AlphaBay was drug-related, there was also a huge volume of so-called digital goods sold. The FBI estimated that when AlphaBay was busted, it had listings for 4,488 stolen personal IDs, 28,800 stolen credit card numbers and 3,586 hacking tools. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the bust “the largest darknet marketplace takedown in history.”
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