Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What ordinary people don’t know about the deep web

The November 11 edition of TIME magazine features a cover article on “The Secret (or Deep) Web” (pp20-27), which most regular users of the internet are not even aware of — I, for one, did not know that what I had always regarded as that most splendid of inventions, the internet as “horizontal”, democratising axis of globalisation, had anything “deeper” than precisely its “horizontality” (except in so far as the “oligopolistic” axis of sustained attempts at internet control intersected it at 90 degrees). It is mind-boggling to learn that this Deep Web comprises 7500 Terabytes, compared to the 19 Terabytes of the web people know. A veritable virtual iceberg.

At any rate, it was quite an eye-opener to learn that there are vast “underground” levels of the web that even Google cannot reach, and access to which depends on special software. As might be expected, the “deep” web is, like its shallow, horizontal counterpart, a genuine “pharmakon” — a remedy and poison at the same time: it is the comparatively out-of-sight, anonymity-guaranteed medium of choice for both law-enforcement agencies (as well as snooping agencies that are on the right side of the law), AND for criminals and criminal organisations in whose interest it is to stay out of reach of ordinary search engines like Google and Yahoo.

If Google is the most frequently used search instrument for the “visible” web, then Tor (The Onion Router, in light of its layers) is its open-source counterpart for searching the “invisible” web. Here I should quote Lev Grossman and Jay Newton-Small from the TIME article (p22): “If the Deep Web is a masked ball, Tor provides the costumes. It was a highly elegant and effective creation, so much so that even the people who built it didn’t know how to break it.”

The reason for its effectiveness is the mechanism(s) it employs to safeguard anonymity, which has become ever-more difficult to maintain since the advent of social media sites like Facebook. What Tor enables one to do when you enter the Deep Web, is to wrap your usually traceable information — name, email address, search history — in layers of encryption. Moreover, it disguises your location by sending all the information you are providing through a web of relays (of which it has 4 000, although only three are randomly used in each communication), each of which peels a layer of encryption away before forwarding it to the next relay. It also changes the relay path regularly. Only after passing through the third relay, does Tor connect you to the website you’re after.

The TIME article focuses on one of several illegal or criminal-activity websites (including sites for purchasing forged passports and “high quality” counterfeit US dollars) located on the Secret Web — what is known as Silk Road, where one could shop for virtually all known drugs, from cannabis through crystal meth, mescaline, ecstasy and cocaine to “good quality” heroin.

I said “could” because the FBI recently arrested a man called Ross Ulbricht, whom they believe to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, owner and administrator of Silk Road. Ulbricht had evaded them for a long time, partly because clients always placed their orders through Tor, and partly because they paid in Bitcoin, the “purely” digital, completely unregulated currency, which is practically anonymous. This means that Silk Road transactions did not leave any tracks, financial or otherwise, in the real world, even if its narcotics “products” were sent by ordinary mail, like any parcel (which explains why it was unlikely for anyone to suspect anything).

While I was reading this article on the “secret web”, it crossed my mind that the crime novel that I read recently (Leif Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End; see my post on Mirror wars) also left me with the distinct impression that the everyday social world that one encounters at street level — in schools, shopping centres, theatres, and so on (and even in newspapers and on the “ordinary” internet) — is but a façade which hides another world. One of secret, behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, of strings being pulled in one country and repercussions occurring across the globe, of colleagues seeing and talking to each other in broad daylight, and not knowing or ever suspecting what others might be doing with themselves in the evening, or over weekends.

Among other things, Persson’s novel delves into the activities of the Swedish secret police, or “SePo”, which is entrusted with many interrelated tasks, including that of providing on-going information to the minister of justice regarding the activities of right-wing elements. The latter include plans to overthrow the Social Democratic government, as well as to assassinate its prime minister (who is widely suspected, among conservatives, of spying for the Russians).

Persson writes with undeniable authority on these matters, albeit in fictional vein, because he is all of Scandinavia’s most famous criminologist and psychological profiler (like our own Micki Pistorius), as well as being professor at the national Swedish police board. Not surprisingly, he is frequently consulted by the Swedish media as the country’s leading authority on crime. Reading his novel drives home an awareness that he is fully conversant with unacknowledged events that occur in the interstices of justice.

But his novel does not only parallel the TIME article on the tomfoolery that happens on the hidden, “secret web” in its uncovering of widespread covert activities by members of the secret police, who move among other citizens without them knowing that they are always on the radar of these people; it also reminds one that the private activities of “familiar” colleagues may not really fall within the domain of what is misleadingly called “normal”.

One of the characters in the narrative, for instance, who happens to be a chief superintendent in the secret police — and who is notable among his peers for his suave appearance and sartorial prowess — just happens to be a well-disguised psychopath who neatly got rid of his hypochondriac mother by nudging her into the path of an oncoming train. He also gets off on women acting the role (under the guidance of his expert hand) of little girls who serve him drinks, dressed in nothing but a pair of skimpy panties, and routinely fastens them to the bedposts to give them a sound lashing with his belt. He is the kind of psycho who gets a hard-on just thinking back to the sadistic sex he had with the nymphomaniac wife of a colleague. There are some chilling moments when one realises that one of the female characters one has come to like, has been taken in by the superintendent’s charm, fake “sensitivity” and fashionable appearance, blissfully unaware of what’s waiting for her.

Hence, it is not only on the web that things are not what they seem at first sight. In his short article, “Spy vs Spy” (TIME, November 11, 2013, p12), referring to the hullabaloo over American spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Michael Crowley observes: “The latest NSA flap may be less a story about a spy agency run amok than a peek into a world where for political leaders, the walls (and phones, tablets and laptops) always have ears.” If one puts the revelations on the “deep web” together with Persson’s insights into the shadowy world of secret policing, it seems safe to say that, at any given time, there are shenanigans within shenanigans going on around us, and the world is not as straightforward a place as one would sometimes like to believe.

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