The internet’s secretive hangouts

Worried about another seven years of President Jacob Zuma drenching the republic with even more of his self-serving, spook-protected, socially regressive JZ-isms?

Is your name Helen Zille and do you want to storm the Nkandla fortress and stage a coup d’état? Or perhaps merely free the president’s wives from apparent extreme-feeder bondage?

Then try the Hidden Wiki. Situated deep in the internet’s underbelly, it is where you can apparently find everything you would need to take over a country, or break away from an existing one to form your own: contract killers, mercenaries, guns to arm them with and “how to” manuals that advise exactly the strategy required.

The Hidden Wiki looks and feels like Wikipedia, even down to its design. But, whereas Wikipedia is the sterile blonde catering for Generation Idiocracy’s search for quick information packaged in McDonald’s chicken bite sizes, the Hidden Wiki is her much nastier, much more interesting, darker cousin.

You can apparently access pretty much anything, including paedophile sex holidays in Cambodia where, for $600, you get airport-to-hotel transfers, a translator, a personal driver who knows where to find those clubs and “an unlimited supply of Viagra”.

Or download a “tutorial on making a pedo site of your own and reducing the attendant anonymity/security risks”. Or, if you are obsessed with a certain paraphilia, you can check out the “Animal Mating Zone”, “Delphi’s Dolphin Page” (for those aroused by cetaceans, including whales and orcas) and – a must for those fed up with the country and packing for Perth – the “Roophilia” page, which has a gallery of Tasmanian tigers, kangaroos and wallabies in various stages of arousal or coitus.

Although you can also buy the passwords to various XXX sites at discounted prices or access “Adolf Hitler’s PreTeen Collection”, the Hidden Wiki isn’t all pornography and sexual deviance, mind you.

‘Underground Market Board’
This is the internet’s black market, after all, or Hillbrow circa 1995, if you will. On the “Underground Market Board” one can apparently buy hacked-into credit cards, PayPal accounts with loads of credit, Glock22s, the services of hackers, someone who will change your grades, United States ID books, pay to get a fake Twitter account verified and, yes, contract killers. Some will kill anyone at a price, others won’t take out politicians or religious leaders – which is a rather warped morality. Emailed questions to said killers about their military background, favoured methods of murder, et cetera, unfortunately did not elicit any responses.

You can also, apparently, link up to an alphabet soup of drugs – hard and soft – on sites such as Silk Road and Eris. The Mail & Guardian was unable to authenticate these sites by ordering anything from a list including MDMA moonrock crystals with 84% purity ($85/g, $160/2g and $220/3g) or the Sour Diesel hybrid, mainly Indica marijuana ($340/oz) that promises a “very strong head and upper body buzz” because, well, it is illegal, you know. Bugger the relentless search for the truth in journalism and all that, shall we. If you hadn’t noticed, the profession is in crisis.

The Hidden Wiki is part of the “deep web”: the hard-to-find sites and secretive networks that don’t come up on Google or Yahoo searches that constitute the “surface web”.

According to Mike Bergman – who coined the term “deep web” in 2001 in a seminal white paper, The Deep Web: Surfacing Hidden Value, which appeared in the Journal of Electronic Publishing – the deep web accounted for most of the internet, about 90%, 11 years ago. The M&G was unable to locate more up-to-date information.

But it is in the deep web where criminal networks communicate, child predators stalk, right- and left-wing groups organise and political dissidents in countries such as Iran and China connect with the outside world and convey the repression they face or the lived realities outside propaganda cycles.

It is also where “hacktivist” collectives operate, breaking through ­government and corporation firewalls to access secret information that could be used on information dumping sites like WikiLeaks.

In October 2011, the Hacktivist collective Anonymous launched Operation Darknet, in which its members posted the personal details of 1589 members of child-porn site Lolita City on a pastebin (an application that stores text for a certain amount of time).

Murky address space
Sites such as the Hidden Wiki can only be accessed through anonymity networks like the Tor web browser. Tor, or the Onion Router, is an open-source network that directs internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network of servers to conceal users’ locations and identities.

Tech activist Karen Reilly, who works on Tor, told the M&G that “one of the reasons to set up a dark net is to avoid detection. Measuring murky address space is a challenge. Some of the best examples of Hidden Services are not published, because they serve as a secret meeting place for people who need a safe space for political activities and support groups.”

The use of Tor by dissidents in Ethiopia was disrupted in May this year. In a posting, Tor noted that the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation had been using a “deep packet inspection [a sort of finger-printing of encrypted information]of all internet traffic … We have previously analysed the same kind of censorship in China, Iran and Khazakstan.”

On the topic of child-porn rings and human trafficking, Reilly said Tor worked with groups like Anonymous “to protect their communications.

“We have met with victims, law enforcement, government officials and activists who work to protect vulnerable people. This is not solely a technology issue. We are more interested in addressing crimes against children and trafficked people in the physical world than we are in hiding these issues from view,” said Reilly.

The deep web, it seems, is much more than a playground for the perverse. It is – much like the real world – a battleground where fundamentalism and radicalism clash.

Niren Tolsi is a senior reporter for the Mail & Guardian

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The internet’s secretive hangouts