It looks innocent enough, that little green "g" icon in the top corner of your computer screen — exactly like the old Google one. Except, it isn’t. On it you’ll find another world — a mire of avarice and lust, wrath and envy.
This is the Dark Web, or Dark Net, a manifestation of forbidden fantasies in pixels and binary coding, a search engine for sin.
Want to ferret money offshore illegally? Indulge sexual proclivities that aren’t discussed in polite society? Need a guy to do you a favour involving some kneecapping? The Dark Web offers it all, though clunkily.
In this case, that "g" refers to "Grams" — a search engine on the Dark Net, for all the different marketplaces that exist in this more open but hidden corner of the Internet.
Type in an innocuous word such as "light", and these are the results: a bargain rate on 1g of light brown heroin (from a trusted dealer in Norway), or an LED lamp guaranteed to help you clone credit cards.
If you’re looking for something specific — say, cocaine, heroin, fake IDs, stolen bank cards, counterfeit money, or even prescription drugs — it’s all here, accessible even from the southern tip of Africa.
On one level, the Dark Net is a libertarian’s dream, a thumping triumph of free-market principles unfettered by nosy government or any other intervention whatsoever. Only, put this argument under a microscope, and it starts to unravel.
On some Dark Net sites, it’s a bit of a Kafkaesque twist on Amazon.
Marketplaces with names like Agora, The Majestic Garden, Oasis, AlphaBay and Hansa offer anything from a tutorial on how to become a fake Uber driver (only 99c), instructions on how to make a bomb to a how-to on forging a UK passport.
Is the new guy in the office stealing your thunder? Is a politician stressing you out? No problem — hire a hitman, who’ll break bones to specifications — US$3,000 to maim someone, $10,000 to assassinate him. Up to $180,000 if he’s high-profile.
There are other, perhaps more surprising, criminal activities.
For example, company officials sell information to traders, which allows them to make a killing by insider trading. (Imagine, for example, what those who knew of Nhlanhla Nene’s sacking weeks in advance could have made?)
While you might think SA is so far behind the digital curve that this is purely of academic interest, many of these services are available in this country. And the Dark Net provides an equally alluring avenue for SA’s crooks to peddle their products — extending their reach globally to make a killing.
The Hawks, the priority crime directorate inside the SA Police Service, told the Financial Mail that between 8,000 and 9,000 South Africans routinely use the Dark Net. And that number is growing.
"Especially when you consider the sort of crimes, it’s heinous. It’s not petty theft, it is all your socially damaging crimes — child pornography, drug trade, human trafficking, renting a hitman," says one officer.
This increase in SA means the Dark Net is "starting to look like a threat" to society, the Hawks add.
To get a better understanding of how real this threat is, the Financial Mail spent the past month trawling various websites inside the Dark Net. What we found was alarming.
On the Hansa marketplace, you’ll find a vendor selling a strain of weed called Royal Swazi, shipped from SA.
There, 60g will set you back $150 (R2,100), which is many times what street dealers would get locally.
An Amazon-style website provides a detailed description of how it is grown near Piggs Peak in Swaziland, and a list of terms and conditions that seem rather odd for a website operating on the fringes of legality.
As an evidently civic-minded dope dealer, for example, it specifies "no under-21s", and asserts the "right to cancel" any order — though one wonders which court it would approach to invoke that right. And it promises to deliver within 35 days.
As data intelligence consultancy Terbium Labs explains in a report this month: "The Dark Net drug trade, if we can call it that, is far more organised and mundane than you might expect ... reviews follow a standard template, where users rank the stealth, shipping time, purity, high, and overall experience."
Surf over to another website, and an SA vendor offers to ship 20g of amphetamine sulphate (a variation of "tik") for $285. Like a traditional Amazon webpage, the feedback section has gushing reviews from users.
Evidently, some SA merchants are now making a killing thanks to the Dark Net. On the other side of the coin, experts say a large number of South Africans are using the Dark Net to buy products too, including drugs.
This isn’t as difficult as you might think. You use special software and a special Web browser (usually Tor) to mask your identity and location.
From there, it’s easy pickings.
Most websites say they deliver worldwide. Vendors who deliver to SA include companies that peddle MDMA (ecstasy), fake €50 notes, drivers’ licences and ID cards for most nationalities, and fake credit cards.
In other instances, SA-issued bank cards, with their pins, are being sold, listing the amount available in the account for criminals seeking to duplicate the cards. [Typically, you pay 10% of what’s in the account].
While "assassination websites" aren’t hard to find, it’s unclear whether these "hits" are actually carried out. The "Besa Mafia" site, which offered to "kill people or beat the shit out of him", turned out to be an elaborate scam to swindle Bitcoins.
However, at least one other assassination website offered its services in SA, though it warned it didn’t offer an "extensive service" in this country.
The man behind the largest search engine on the Dark Net, who spoke to the Financial Mail (but who asked not to be named), says the amount of money being spent on the Dark Net makes it a huge global market.
"These dark markets are serious players. When you are dealing with seven or eight-figure dollar values — more than $1m — and (the markets are getting between) 5% and 10% commission, that’s significant money."
SA, he says, is still far behind other global destinations for Dark Net commerce, with not too many SA credit cards being found on the websites.
One reason, he says, is that shipping to and from SA is more risky. "It is very difficult to participate in these dark markets [as an SA] merchant, but as a buyer there is this total problem [that] shipping to SA sucks — it’s awful and that in a way has protected it."
In the US, he says, shipping happens through private agencies like FedEx.
"Now if you ship to SA, no-one is going to pay the overhead of shipping, so they will put it in a standard box and send it. But now you are entering the government space [as the Post Office is state-owned]," he says.
So what, in fact, is the Dark Net?
Perhaps most literally, it is the Internet below the Internet you know. Most people don’t know it, but the Internet they use — Google, company websites, news sites or banking sites — represents just 1% of the entire Internet traffic out there.
Prof Martin Olivier from the University of Pretoria’s computer science department, compares the traditional World Wide Web to driving around Sandton: you see the corporate headquarters of SA’s top companies but you know that inside those buildings are areas that are access-controlled, which you don’t see.
Those access-controlled areas are a deeper layer most people don’t see, known as the Deep Web. One layer below that, even more hidden, is the Dark Net.
Olivier says the Dark Net is like islands in the sea of the Internet, unlinked to anything else, a perfect place to hide anything known only to the person who hid it and whoever he shared it with. "It is like any secret place: what you do with it depends on what your motives are."
For criminals, the attraction is obvious.
As Troels Oerting, a director of European crime fighting agency Europol, told Jane’s Intelligence Review in 2014: "[Buyers can] get the illegal commodity delivered risk-free to a place of their choice by the mailman or a courier, or maybe by drone in the future, and can pay with virtual currency and in full anonymity, without the police being able to identify either the buyer or the seller."
What makes the Dark Net dark is the hidden service protocol, which lets anyone make a website or messaging server to communicate anonymously. Normally an authority can take a website down for breaking the law, but on the Dark Net a site remains up because there is no central figure with the power to take it down.
On any given day, there are about 4,000 hidden services available on the Dark Net, 40% more than four years ago. But Dark Net sites are ephemeral — on and off constantly, never all on at the same time. Tor is used by about 2m people a day while about 250,000 people a day make use of the hidden services search engine, says one Dark Net operator.
By sharing your site’s public key, a 16-digit address made up of numbers and letters, you invite people to your site. For example, journalism service ProPublica (which is legal) uses the key: propub3r6espa33w.onion.
While the hitmen, drugs and porn dealers are obviously the most eye-catching corners of the Deep Web, not all of it is illegal.
A study released this month by Terbium Labs that looked at 400 sites shows that 54.5% of all content on the Dark Net is legal: security warnings, political party activism, community groups for people who distrust the authorities.
Some more notable sites include WikiLeaks (a legal site) or Sci-Hub (less legitimate, if more benign than some), which provides 58m academic papers free-of-charge, which were taken from institutions. Surprisingly, the Dark Net has extensive eBook libraries on subjects as un-criminal as investigative journalism.
Of the rest, illegal drugs accounted for 12%, pharmaceutical drugs (like human growth hormone) 3%, illicit marketplaces (where anything from drugs to porn are sold) 6.5%, hacking (selling ransomware kits or other tools) 1.25% and another 1.25% are concerned with outright fraud (selling bank accounts, for example).
Then, most distressingly, 1% involves a category called "exploitation" – sites targeted at children. "This is a legitimate and real concern on the Dark Net and is not as infrequent as you might hope it to be," say the Terbium researchers.
The paedophiles are, with good reason, the most reviled of the Dark Web’s communities, serving an estimated global network of 500,000 people.
Says one Dark Net operator: "These guys have serious emotional problems.
"They have all these levelling systems [which measure trust between users] and they are creating original content. They are serious producers of child pornography and they charge a lot of money."
This, to many, is the real disease of the Dark Net. "It is overwhelmingly infested with the dregs of society, looking for children in pain, and that is the hardest thing to come to grips with: that the majority of users are looking for abused children," he says.
The libertarian notion that the Dark Net is simply about free "choice" is demolished by the fact that it is largely a refuge for some of the most wicked elements of society.
Stock manipulation is also a growing market. On one site, says the operator, you would pay a buy-in fee to collude with other traders to pump and dump stocks.
The Hawks, which has a cybercrime unit dedicated to trawling the Dark Net for illicit behaviour, believes a large number of the 8,000 to 9,000 South Africans who use it do so for criminal purposes.
Brigadier Piet Pieterse, head of the Hawks unit, says that in SA the Dark Net is mostly used to share images of child pornography, mass marketing fraud, sell drugs and barter illegally obtained credit card information.
Pieterse says the applications of what the Dark Net could be used for are endless. It could hypothetically disrupt SA’s already fraught government tender processes, giving buyers an advantage.
Other policemen say it is surprising how often classified government documents are posted on the Dark Net.
An officer in Pieterse’s unit (who did not want to be named as it could compromise his investigations) says many people — even in government — just don’t understand the threat the Dark Net poses for SA.
"No-one really understands what it is about and the impact it has," she adds.
Either way, the Dark Net has the potential to do deep damage in a society where the law-enforcement authorities are already struggling to investigate and hold criminals accountable for crime in the physical world.
Incidents of South Africans seeing their computers "hijacked" and then "ransomed" back to them by hackers are also becoming more common.
Typically, the computer freezes and a message pops up saying that if the users want all their files to be "released", they need to pay a specific amount in Bitcoins to a specified e-wallet. These ransomware kits are frequently sold on the Dark Net, often by Russian or East European hacking outfits. As Time magazine reported, these hackers are not going after the heavily fortified systems of banks or corporations but "straight for easy targets: small businesses, schools, hospitals, and computer users like us".
How are they getting away with it?
What’s most extraordinary about the Dark Net is that this illicit trade is being conducted under the noses of law enforcement agencies across the world, who seem powerless to stop it.
Intuitively, you’d imagine police should be able to track purchases and effect arrests down the supply chain. But it’s not that simple. Sellers post goods using vacuum-sealed fingerprint-free bags (often dipped in bleach as a further precaution), with printed labels. About 90% of shipments get through, The Economist has estimated.
For extra security, merchants change their Web addresses from time to time to keep unwarranted snoops (journalists or cops) away. The URLs aren’t straight-forward, using a jumble of letters and numbers.
The Tor browser, which hides the user’s location and masks what someone is searching for, introduces an added challenge for the police. Olivier uses the analogy of passing a letter in an envelope around a circle of anonymous people in different locations in which each person puts the letter in another envelope – making it impossible to tell where it originated from.
The distribution network works so well because it relies on a system of favours and trust – the old "honour among thieves". Criminals feel comfortable there, say the Hawks, because they "trust each other".
So, someone can order cocaine from one of the US marketplaces for delivery in Johannesburg. Payment is made through a crypto currency — most often, Bitcoins, which is a decentralised, anonymous and reputable transaction gateway which isn’t controlled by an accountable central institution. Bitcoins are then deposited into a seller’s "virtual wallet" and within a short time the drugs are delivered.
Says a Hawks officer: "The guy delivering the drugs is unlikely to know what he is dropping off or why. He most likely doesn’t have criminal intent but he got a call asking him to make the delivery if he wants his debt forgiven."
Yet the Dark Net isn’t entirely accountability-free, as the case of Silk Road illustrates. Silk Road was the most popular black market website, flogging everything from drugs to hitmen.
But in 2013 its founder, Ross Ulbricht (pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts), was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He later claimed his motive with Silk Road was "about giving people the freedom to make their own choices".
Today, if you link to the original Silk Road, all you see is an image stating "the hidden site has been seized" and the FBI logo.
Interestingly, not every illicit marketplace is utterly without conscience. Silk Road, for example, said it would sell only "victimless" contraband, while other sites refused to sell weapons or poison. One marketplace, Evolution (which has also closed), refused to sell "child pornography, services related to murder, assassination, terrorism, prostitution, Ponzi schemes and lotteries", reports Wired magazine. Yet it did allow credit-card data to be sold.
All of which leaves SA’s law-enforcement authorities, who these days seem caught up in playing politics, quite jittery. The State Security Agency (SSA), like the Hawks, has been trying to keep an eye on the Dark Net. But, says spokesman Brian Dube, it’s tricky to trace shady transactions that use Bitcoins.
Quite how much money is involved is unclear. But one company that conducts research into the Dark Net, law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, estimates it could run into billions of dollars.
Dube says the SSA monitors channels used on the Dark Net to look for any mention of terrorist attacks planned against SA infrastructure. This isn’t so far-fetched, he says, as there are certain sites that offer services for terrorist organisations. Most simply spread propaganda and act as a communications hub — a kind of Facebook for terrorists. But terrorist cells are increasingly recruiting through the Dark Net.
Equally, the classified documents posted online — often obtained through hacks, theft, or disgruntled employees — are often impossible to remove.
"As soon as the information is made public this ‘confidential’ information is copied, saved and viewed by thousands of people, making the managing of this type of information leak impossible," says Dube.
This is perhaps one of the more benevolent uses of the Dark Net – a safe place for whistle-blowers to post documents without fearing recrimination from zealous politicians seeking to target them.
Prof Basie von Solms, director of the Centre for Cyber Security, says if you are a whistle-blower the Dark Net is the safest bet. "That is the place you will probably make it available or even put it up for sale and make a buck," says Von Solms.
One policewoman who spoke to us anonymously says the growth in the Dark Net in SA is a reaction to government’s desire to impose more controls on the Internet by policing it more vigorously. The more draconian these laws become, the bigger it will grow. "You limit freedom and people will always seek out places to live out those freedoms, whether criminal or not."
It’s a noble sentiment, suggesting a higher raison d’être for the Dark Net. But the most depraved fringes of this hidden Internet world make it more of a menace than a saviour right now.
What it means: The "free choice" notion is demolished by the fact that it is a refuge for some of the most wicked elements of society.