The dark web explained: Experts reveal secrets of the internet’s seedy underbelly

Joel Loynds
a spider web made with ai to reprsent the dark web

The dark web isn’t as scary as it sounds, and it’s a fascinating place to try to understand. We spoke to researchers who monitor one popular use: crime.

When people talk about the dark web, it’s still one of the only things online that has an air of mystery around it. A tiny portion of the ‘deep web’ is dubbed the ‘dark web’ due to its habit of hosting illicit materials and criminal activities.

You have to understand that neither the dark nor the deep web is particularly complex. The web as we know it is split into segments, interconnected to form the titular ‘web’.

What is the deep web?

The deep web is the bits of the web that search engines don’t surface or index. This can be anything from something simple like the Wayback Machine’s millions of archived links to people just not bothering to do the work to get their site indexed on Google.

This is where people get confused. The deep web can be accessed by a regular browser, it just might require you to know the link.

What is the dark web?

The dark web, however, is built on darknet systems. These mask the needed connections until you use a browser equipped to view the pages. This could be Tor, or something similar. Often dark web links will be .onion links.

Probably one of the most famous dark websites is the Silk Road. Run by Ross Ulbricht, who went by Dread Pirate Roberts, it amassed millions in sales through the use of cryptocurrency to sell drugs and illicit materials online.

However, since its dissolution, the dark web has continued to be rife with criminal activity. Monitoring this is a complicated task, as it turns out, the people running the sites have cottoned onto a new method.

Dark web criminals are using new tactics to avoid the law

This new method involves shutting up shop, and simply opening a new site. The issue that places like the Silk Road or AlphaBay have run into, is that they got far too big and noisy. Those running these illicit stores simply set up smaller stores and ditch them as soon as the sites get too hot, or too popular.

Stolen information sold for high prices online

A recent report lists all the average prices for materials that can be bought through the dark web. This includes credit cards with a balance of up to $5000 being sold for an average of $110.

Banking logins are $40, while cryptocurrency accounts could be sold off for as little as $20, to $2650. These accounts don’t automatically ensure cash to you but could be used to operate without tracing it back to yourself.

Even Airbnb accounts have been sold, with the prices averaging out at $300. Of course, passports and forged documents range from $4000 to a US driver’s license at just $150.

The report goes into detail about year-on-year differences in prices and even points out that law enforcement ratcheting up the arrests has done little to deter availability. It was found that there’s a price decrease more often than not.

Dark Web Price Index reports on changes happening online

All of this information comes from the latest Dark Web Price Index, a report that tallies everything being sold via the dark web. Compiled by Privacy Affairs, we spoke to content manager Veronika Biliavska, who revealed how they manage to attain this information.

The statistics and prices are incredibly interesting, but what’s more intriguing is how Privacy Affairs manages to keep tabs on all these sites:

“We noticed that the majority of them are from the same seller, so it doesn’t change much. The address changed but if they are selling 100 Twitter accounts for $2000, we are almost sure it will be the same.”

As it turns out, those selling on the dark web want to retain the business and not fade into obscurity. In doing so, they’ll wind up advertising things on Telegram or the site itself before pulling the plug.

Who are Privacy Affairs?

Privacy Affairs isn’t a huge cybersecurity firm, but a highly invested team who recognizes patterns or simply gets to know individuals from running across them:

“Our research team spent at least a few hours every day on the forum, they [kind of] know everyone.

“For example, we were tracking Pompompurin’s activity even before he has become that famous. He was arrested by the FBI in March.”

Pompompurin, or Conor Brain Fitzpatrick, was the owner of the Breached Forum. These forums were dedicated to hacking and selling off data from breaches.

Telegram caught up in illicit activities

Telegram has also become a huge means of communication amongst those wanting access to these parts of the web. While a lot of drug dealers will use them, they’ve also wound up being used by a series of groups. Privacy Affairs tells us that they have a dedicated staff member onboard who monitors the activity:

“Primarily, our focus is on staying updated with the latest news, so in case of a data breach or any significant event, we can be the first to know and inform other media outlets.”

The dark web has learned from Silk Road’s mistakes

Silk Road logo in a prison

We asked further about the way that the dark web markets are transient. In a capitalist world, surely there must be a fight to the top? As it turns out, the fear of getting too big has scuppered most of these attempts:

“The longer a market stays active, the greater the risk of being busted by authorities. As a result, there is a deliberate avoidance of becoming too prominent in the Dark Web market space.”

Though, despite a rise in activity on the dark web for this type of material, Privacy Affairs doesn’t criticize law enforcement’s efforts. However, Veronika does believe that there should be some reforms to how they operate currently:

“It does highlight the need for a new and improved system to tackle the ever-changing Dark Web landscape.

“The report recognizes the importance of small steps taken by law enforcement in combating cybercrime, but it also emphasizes the need to start a broader conversation about the cybersecurity landscape.”

Securing your data is more important than ever

Privacy Affairs wants to raise awareness of the things happening on the dark web to do with data, more than anything. Reporting on drug dealers is one thing, but ensuring the public understands how easy it is for your data to fall into the wrong hands is an entirely different battle:

“By initiating this conversation, it is hoped that people will become more vigilant and cautious about their data, leading to increased awareness and security measures to safeguard sensitive information.

“Ultimately, the report aims to contribute positively to the ongoing efforts in cybersecurity and the fight against cybercrime.”

Watch out for AI, the dark web’s next frontier

darkbert represented by an ai abstract image of a brain colored purple and black

Even AI isn’t safe from the clutches of malicious actors. When we asked if any trends were rising from the dark web, Veronika warns to be wary of chatbots and AI:

ChatGPT and OpenAI services, as [well as] any other AI services are the main goal for hackers now. Even if a person wasn’t very careful with their data before, it would be better to start now.”

Google and OpenAI have both started putting warnings not to share sensitive information with their AI bots.

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