Early this year, a robot in Switzerland purchased ten tablets of the illegal drug MDMA, better known as “ecstasy,” from an online marketplace and had them delivered through the postal service to a gallery in St. Gallen where the robot was then set up. The drug buy was part of an installation called “Random Darknet Shopper,” which was meant to show what could be obtained on the “dark” side of the Internet. In addition to ecstasy, the robot also bought a baseball cap with a secret camera, a pair of knock-off Diesel jeans, and a Hungarian passport, among other things.
Passports stolen and forged, heroin, crack cocaine, semiautomatic weapons, people who can be hired to use those weapons, computer viruses, and child pornography—especially child pornography—are all easily obtained in the shaded corners of the Internet. For example, in the interest of research, Jamie Bartlett—the author of The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, a picturesque tour of this disquieting netherworld—successfully bought a small amount of marijuana from a dark-Net site; anyone hoping to emulate him will find that the biggest dilemma will be with which seller—there are scores—to do business. My own forays to the dark Net include visits to sites offering counterfeit drivers’ licenses, methamphetamine, a template for a US twenty-dollar bill, files to make a 3D-printed gun, and books describing how to receive illegal goods in the mail without getting caught. There were, too, links to rape and child abuse videos. According to a study released a few years ago, 80 percent of all dark-Net traffic relates to pedophilia.
The standard metaphor for explaining the dark Net’s relation to the Internet is the familiar iceberg. The towering spire, looming above the water, is the Internet that we navigate daily when we use a search engine like Google or type in a Web address. Underneath it, massive and ghostly, is its sinister consort, the dark Net. But that’s not quite accurate. There is a tremendous amount of quotidian Internet traffic, like online banking and medical record-keeping, that is intentionally and appropriately kept out of sight, locked away in secure databases, protected by passwords or tucked behind paywalls, none of it nefarious or unlawful. This is what is known as “the deep Web,” and by some estimates it is five hundred times larger than the “surface Web”—the Web of Amazon and YouTube and Twitter and Tumblr.
It is within the deep Web that the dark Net (or the dark Web) resides. It is comprised of sites without standard Web addresses, addresses that are not indexed and often not fixed, so that only those who know them can find them. And because these sites are hard to discover, the dark Net is home to a whole range of illicit and covert activities.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.