Friday, 4 October 2013

The Underground Internet

I have always surfed the Internet since it took off in the early 1990s. I remember the days when the Internet comprised of text messages with no color pictures and graphics. I am even knowledgeable in computers and can write a little code in several languages, build basic websites, and other little stuff. However, I never even guessed a whole, hidden world existed in the Internet that most users would never see. They call it the deep Internet, or a better term is the underground or hidden Internet.

Before describing the hidden Internet, I define the standard Internet. For example, a user types the URL into the web address, such as www.hotmail.com. Many things happen that a user never knows. His or her computer looks the IP address for the URL in the DNS database. IP address identifies the web server’s location within the Internet. It is a unique address similar to a mailbox where people send and receive letters. DNS database lists the world’s websites like an address book, including the user’s Internet provider. IP address comprises of four digits ranging from 0 to 255, and a period separates the digits. Subsequently, the user’s computer connects to Hotmail’s servers. User connects to the Internet with an IP address via his or her Internet provider. However, the user’s computer and Hotmail’s servers exchange IP addresses. As the user’s computer and Hotmail servers exchange information back and forth through routers. Routers read the destination and source IP addresses, so they can send the information to the right places. Consequently, a mailman knows where to deliver the mail. Every letter he delivers has a send and return address. As you probably guessed, law enforcement officers can trace IP addresses and track down users who use the Internet for illegal purposes. Once they know the IP address, they know where the server exists in the real world.

An organization, Tor, developed a unique browser that does not use IP addresses. Thus, users’ computers and websites do not use IP addresses as they exchange information. Then the computers can encrypt all data, so no one intercepting a communication can decrypt it or at least not easily. Consequently, a user can remain anonymous as he browses the Internet. Tor becomes the critical software for accessing the hidden Internet.

A user can download Tor for Windows, Apple, Linux, and Android operating systems. The hyperlink is https://www.torproject.org/index.html.en. Designers use a modified version of Firefox that serves as a browser. Then users can use the browser to surf the Internet like a standard browser such as Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, and Opera. If users take precautions, then they can remain anonymous.

I surfed the Internet and checked my IP address. One minute, my IP address placed me in the Netherlands. Then later, I was in Los Angeles, California. Subsequently, my IP address switched to Germany, and so on. I did find this annoying. When I visited Yahoo, the Welcome Screen was in Dutch. After I had returned, it was in English and then German because Yahoo and some websites personalize webpages depending on the user’s country. They use the IP address to determine the user’s location and country.

I found the technology cool, although the Internet speed crept at a slow pace. I could be wrong in my interpretation, but the metaphor of the mailman still works here. How does a mailman know which house to deliver the mail if he has a letter with no send or return address? Communications bounce from router to router in cyberspace until it arrives at the correct router. As a router receives information, it only knows the previous router that sent the communication and the next router where it sends the communication. After a communication passes through several routers, the sender has no link to the receiver. Do you see the secrecy? How can a policeman or agent track down someone if he or she does not know who sent it, or who receives it?

This technology is legal, and users have legitimate reasons to use it. Some believe the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory sponsors this technology to allow the U.S. government to send communications secretly. Spies, military, law enforcement officers, and delegates can send communications secretly without terrorists and enemies intercepting messages. However, the Tor developers use this technology to defend against government surveillance. We know the NSA is eavesdropping on everyone’s communication. Journalists, activists, dissidents, and whistleblowers can use this technology to send secret information to others and have some protection from an autocratic government.

This technology is not foolproof. Government agents can use malware, hacks, and other techniques to reveal a user’s identity. For example, the FBI exploited a security hole in Firefox that copied malware onto a user’s computer. Malware read the user’s IP address and MAC address and relayed that information to the FBI headquarters in Virginia. IP address reveals the user’s location while the MAC address identifies the unique serial number of a computer’s network card. IP address leads the enforcement officers to a person’s location while the MAC identifies the user’s computer.

As you probably guessed, users can use this technology for illegal purposes. FBI arrested Ross William Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road. He also uses the alias the Dread Pirate Roberts. Ross created a hidden website called Silk Road, where users and vendors bought and sold a variety of drugs. Ross Ulbricht earned commissions from the sales as buyers and vendors generated 60,000 hits per day. FBI claims he earned between $30 and $45 million in revenue annually, and the Department of Justice seized $3.6 million in Bitcoin – virtual money. Feds claimed Ross hired a hitman through the hidden Internet to murder both a blackmailer and witness. The URL for the Silk Road is:

http://silkroadvb5piz3r.onion/

If you type the URL into your browser, nothing will show. Your browser looks the URL up in the DNS database, searching for that IP address. However, this website does not exist in the DNS database, and your browser cannot connect to it. You would need to download the Tor browser and type the URL into that browser. Then the browser would connect to the Silk Road. Did you notice the word onion in the URL? Onion refers to the onion network, the hidden world of the Internet. When I typed the URL for Silk Road, I saw the message below:


I surfed this underworld to see what I could discover. I found a search engine, called Torch that indexes the hidden sites. When I clicked on the links, less than half the websites would display. I do not know if some vendors temporarily shut down their websites because the FBI seized Silk Road, or this technology is young and unreliable. For the real Internet, the DNS database organizes the Internet world, where the onion network is decentralized. Nevertheless, I became shocked at what several websites were selling. I could buy guns from Europe, marijuana from the Netherlands, buy counterfeit euros and U.S. dollars, order phony driver’s licenses and passports, or hire a hacker to create hell for my enemy. Then I saw another website where I could hire a hitman if the hacker could not create enough hell for my enemy. I listed the snapshots of these websites at the bottom of this blog. I could give you the website addresses, but they mean nothing in the real Internet world. Did you notice the currency? All vendors accept Bitcoin, but they send the products through regular mail or package delivery company.

Bitcoin constitutes virtual money or cryptocurrency. No central bank or government issues Bitcoins, and 11.75 million Bitcoins were circulating in the world in October 2013. Bitcoins’ supply continuously grows until 2140, stopping at 21 million Bitcoins. Cryptography plays a key role in Bitcoins. Every Bitcoin has a unique, encrypted number. A person opens an account or wallet and can buy Bitcoins from online vendors. A person can store his Bitcoins on his computer or cellphone or use an online wallet. Of course, a person does not show his identity. Then he or she can settle transactions by sending the other party his account information. As a buyer completes a transaction, software encrypts that person’s private key into the transaction along with the Bitcoin number. Ensuring people do not spend the same Bitcoin for multiple transactions a miner clears the transaction. Miner is not the proper terminology. It functions more as a bank or clearinghouse. A miner decrypts the transaction and records it in a ledger. Then it re-issues the Bitcoin to the seller.

Think of a Bitcoin where you send a check to the seller, and he deposits the check into his account. Once the bank receives the check, they change numbers in their ledger by deducting the check amount from the buyer’s account and adding it to the seller’s account. A miner can earn transaction fees and receives newly created Bitcoins by clearing transactions.

This sounds complicated, but do you remember the old days? Rich people could take a suitcase of cash to a Swiss bank and open an account. They get a numbered account that contains no personal information. Then they can use the account to settle transactions secretly. For example, a rich person pays a Congressman a bribe. Rich person contacts the Swiss bank and asks the bank to transfer the bribe amount from his bank account into the Congressman’s bank account. Rich person gives the banker a code (or private key for Bitcoin) to approve the transfer. Transaction remains secret because no one has revealed his or her identities. Consequently, Bitcoin brought the secrecy of banking to the regular people.

I did not think Bitcoins would succeed because the system has several flaws. First, people who deposit their savings into banks have deposit insurance. If their bank fails, FDIC guarantees the depositors will not lose their money up to $250,000. However, no government agency insures Bitcoin or protects people from losses. Second, hackers broke into online wallets and stole the Bitcoins. Since all transactions are electronic, they erased history. Third, the price of Bitcoin fluctuates greatly between $80 and $220. Refer to the chart below: For people to use and accept money, money must retain its value. Some people view Bitcoins as an investment, hoping to buy at a low price and sell for a high price. Finally, a limited number of sellers accept Bitcoins as payment. This was true until I had discovered the hidden world of the Internet, where Bitcoin has become the means of payments.


I became puzzled when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security shut down Mt Gox, the largest Bitcoin operator in the United States in May 2013. U.S. law requires all money exchangers to register with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Feds even seized its bank accounts. I thought the U.S. government was petty because Mt Gox converted government-backed securities into Bitcoins and Mt Gox did not participate in illegal activities.

I thought Bitcoins had no future until I discovered how criminals can use two methods for Bitcoins. First, criminals can launder money using Bitcoins. For example, they buy Bitcoins in the United States utilizing money from illegal proceeds and spend or convert the Bitcoins in any country circumventing government controls on transferring money abroad. Russian government has banned Bitcoins for this reason. Second, criminals use Bitcoins on the hidden Internet. Feds believe that if they can shut down the money, they would kill the black markets operating in the hidden Internet. Feds have one severe problem. A person can use Bitcoins anywhere in the world. It sounds as if the U.S. government has started another war that it cannot win. (I find this amusing, but the sellers send the products through the mail or package delivery companies. I guess the U.S. government does not have enough agents to check all that mail).

I found this technology incredible as it opened a new world before my eyes. I became amazed after I had read the instructions to setup a hidden website. I could convert my laptop into a website server and use my Internet connection to allow users to connect to my website. (It appears most vendors pay a company to host their websites). Then I could submit my URL to Torch search engine so users could find me unless I did not want to be found. Instead, I could pass my URL by word of mouth if I were doing no good. Of course, I am not doing anything illegal, and I have no need for any of these products or services. So I have no real need for this technology unless the U.S. government starts banning books and restricting free speech of professors. Then I could use this technology.

Samples of websites I found after surfing the hidden Internet within fifteen minutes. I do not condone or recommend using these products and services.





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  3. Thanks for the info Ken. I have a question. When you stated the language changed frequently, could you explain why it changed? Did it changed cause you were moving to different countries? Or did the language change because you confused the computer as it had no IP address?

    ReplyDelete