8 of the most unsettling things you'll find on the darknet

Catch a glimpse of what flourishes in the shadows of the Internet.

Stairs to the dark net
Enter the dark

Back in the 1970s, "darknet" wasn't an ominous term: it simply referred to networks that were isolated from the mainstream of ARPANET for security purposes. But as ARPANET became the Internet and then swallowed up nearly all the other computer networks out there, the word came to identify areas that were connected to the Internet but not quite of it, difficult to find if you didn't have a map. Naturally, unsettling content and activity flourished in the shadows. "You can find pretty much anything you can think of in the darknet," says Loucif Kharouni, Senior Threat Researcher at big data security firm Damballa.

See also: The Web's ten most dangerous neighborhoods

Navy intel
Finding your way

A recent white paper from threat intelligence firm Recorded Future examines the linkages between the Web you know and the darknet. The paths usually begin on sites like Pastebin, originally intended as an easy place to upload long code samples or other text but now often where links to the anonymous Tor network are stashed for a few days or hours for interested parties. Tor was developed by the U.S. Navy for intelligence-gathering purposes, but its relative anonymity has caused it to become a darknet haven. What are you going to find there, once you dip into the darknet waters?

Drug store
Drugs

Start with the obvious: People use darknet sites to find drugs. "The darknet has revolutionized drug sales in much the same way the Internet has done for legitimate retailers," says Gavin Reid, VP of Threat Intelligence at security firm Lancope. "It provides a layer of abstraction between the sellers and users. Before sites like Silk Road, drug users would have to risk going to an often bad area of town, risk a physical robbery, as well as the risk of being caught by police. Now users can sit at home and not interact at all (except over a PGP'd email session) with the drug seller. This has brought a lot more people into the game and decentralized both the sale and risk of narcotic use."

Seller ratings
Ratings for drug dealers

This one's slightly less obvious, but when you think about it, what's one of the main ways the Internet has revolutionized non-illegal commerce? By making user ratings ubiquitous and easy to find for just about anybody. And so too for darknet: In the wake of the crackdown on Silk Road, The Hub has become a centralized location for people to rate darknet drug sellers, as well as a resource for drug harm reduction.

Illegal weapons
Weapons

Drug users may use darknet services to try to avoid gun-toting street dealers, but that doesn't mean that firearms don't flow freely on the darknet. A major bust earlier this year stopped an operation shipping guns from the United States to Australia, though obviously that isn't the last of it by far. In addition to weapons that are illegal to sell online, you can also apparently buy weapons that are illegal anywhere, like a .22 caliber pen gun that looks like something James Bond would use, or a chunk of (thankfully not even close to weapons-grade) uranium.

Identity documents
Credit: Loucif Kharouni
Identity documents

Proving that many of the things for sale on darknet are pretty much what a high school student would imagine as what you'd buy from a nefarious criminal underground, many darknet vendors offer fake drivers' licenses and other identity documents -- though we imagine the plans customers have for these items are more nefarious than just buying beer for a party. Damballa's Loucif Kharouni sent me this screenshot from a darknet site dedicated to selling fake U.S. drivers licenses for $200.

The IDs you'd get for this price will work in a pinch, but they don't correspond to any partcular real-life person. For that, you'd have to go deeper and get bespoke in your nefarious purchases.

Your entire digital life
Credit: Raj Samani
You

"One of the things is how personal many of the products and services have become," says Raj Samani, VP and CTO at Intel Security. He says identity sales "go beyond cards and medical data to entire digital lives, with everything from social media and email accounts, to a wealth of personal data for sale. I recognize this is not as impactful as, say, SCADA system access for sale, but it is so personal." Samani sent me this censored screenshot of one person who discovered the extent to which his identity was being sold online without his knowledge.

Hit man
Hit men

Before we give you the impression that the darknet is a place where anyone can buy any service, though, take this as reassurance: The people offering murder-for-hire services are almost certainly scam artists who will happily take your money but not get into the messy business of actually killing anyone. Ross Ulbricht, who, as Dread Pirate Roberts, ran the Silk Road site for years, appears to have fallen prey to such a scam, handing over $1 million in bitcoin to fake murderers. A higher-stakes assassination marketplace that attempts to crowdfund the murder of prominent public figures seems to also be a means by which fools and their bitcoin are parted.

Exit scam
Betrayal

Indeed, it probably shouldn't come as a shock that people you meet on the darknet dealing in illegal and dangerous goods and services may not be fully on the up and up. The tenuous nature of the connection between criminal vendors and sellers, combined with the stress of being a drug or weapons dealer, has given rise to a unique form of darknet betrayal, the so-called exit scam. In this scenario, a dealer who's built up customer trust (remember those ratings!) decides to leave the game and stops buying from his suppliers -- but keeps taking money from his customers until they figure out he's not shipping anymore. In that window, he'll collect a pretty penny, then vanish.

China's great wall
Freedom?

It's worth remembering that what flourishes on darknet is material that's been banned elsewhere online. For people living in countries with a relatively free political climate, the illegal activities that end up there tend to be of the sort we've outlined here: violence and intoxicants. But in other, more restrictive cultures, the darknet gives space to breathe that we take for granted. Earlier this year, in the wake of the Chinese government cracking down on VPN connections through the so-called "great firewall," Chinese-language discussions started popping up on the darknet -- mostly full of people who just wanted to talk to each other in peace.