The proud sales blurb on the website leaves no room for misinterpretation. ‘Your No 1 source of illicit substances on the Web,’ it reads.
‘Fast and stealthy shipping. A+++ quality and perfect customer service. This is what DrugMarket is famous for.’
Offering everything from LSD to cocaine, heroin and ecstasy on pages laid out like those on Amazon, DrugMarket’s top seller today is ‘100g High Quality Afghan Opium First Grade’ at $2,700 (£1,670).
Using a programme called Tor, internet users are able to communicate in complete privacy. It was used by political activists during the Arab Spring, but is also by criminals
You might think it foolish to advertise your services as a drug dealer on the internet and, usually, you’d be right. But this isn’t the World Wide Web; this is the ‘Dark Net’, a cyber world where secrecy is guaranteed and anything goes.
It is the internet’s Wild West: a hidden marketplace where drug dealers, gun runners, assassins and paedophile pornographers can peddle their wares with almost no chance of being caught.
Earlier this week, Google and Microsoft announced vital measures to prevent paedophiles searching for images of child abuse on the web.
The move was prompted by the murders of 12-year-old Tia Sharp and five-year-old April Jones and was hailed by child protection agencies and this newspaper.
Both Tia and April were killed by men whose perverted interest in young girls was fuelled by the pornographic websites they were able to access all too readily via Google.
But the fight against such sick websites is not over. Computer experts have warned that the new measures would not stymie really determined paedophiles, who would search for images in the recesses of the Dark Net.
‘Hard-core paedophiles don’t go onto Google to search for images,’ said Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. ‘They go into the dark corners of the internet.’
To understand what Mr Gamble means, it is necessary to take a journey into the underbelly of the web and onto sites that never appear on Google or any other well-known search engine.
Webpages such as Silk Road, which sells everything from drugs to guns, operate using Tor
The site's alleged founder Ross Ulbrict, 29, was arrested by the FBI but the page was up again within weeks
This is because they are located on the Dark Net (there are actually many of these computer networks, but the term ‘Dark Net’ has come to be used as a collective noun along with ‘Hidden Web’ and ‘Deep Web’). And it enables anonymous encrypted communications between individuals and websites, ensuring total privacy.
The one most commonly used is known as Tor, a system originally developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory more than a decade ago and first called The Onion Router.
It works by bouncing messages around several computers before they reach their final destination. The Tor network — which its founders liken to a series of ‘virtual tunnels’ — has 3,200 volunteers around the world who allow their computers to be used to send these messages.
Once users have downloaded some free software from the Tor website, they are ready to begin surfing — or selling things — with impunity.
Each message that is sent has several layers of encryption which are peeled away like the skins of an onion as it moves from computer to computer.
These reveal the next destination of the communication (which could be a file, web page, message, picture and so on), without showing its content as it is passed along the chain.
This means it is impossible to establish the identities or locations of the people at either end of the chain, or to see what they are talking about, selling, swapping or sharing.
‘Hard-core paedophiles don’t go onto Google to search for images. They go into the dark corners of the internet.’
Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre
Jim Gamble, the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre
Tor has also proved invaluable for political activists in oppressive regimes — it enabled the communications that sparked the Arab Spring, when regular internet networks were either being taken down or monitored by security services. And as a safe place for government whistle-blowers it is peerless.
But it has also become a paradise for criminals. I downloaded the software from the Tor website this week and within minutes I had access to a world of criminality.
On a site called the Hidden Wiki I found links to dozens of purveyors of guns, drugs, stolen credit cards, sex tourism, and criminals offering a host of services, ranging from computer hacking to murder.
And Mr Gamble was correct. There were links — which I did not click on — in a section entitled Erotica, sub-section Under Age. They were called ‘Hard Candy’ and ‘Jailbait’.
Using a rudimentary search engine called TorSearch, I also found a link entitled: ‘Guide to Making Child Porn — a short list of tips for making photos/videos of child pornography.’
The array of services on offer is mind-boggling. One site, The Hitman Network, boasts: ‘We are a team of three contract killers working in the U.S., Canada and the EU.
‘Once you make a “purchase” we will reply within one to two days — contract will be completed within one to three weeks depending on target.’ The Network says it will kill people in North America for $10,000 [£6,170] or Europe for $12,000 [£7,400].
Many of the pages have Amazon-style designs with shopping baskets and checkouts for the illicit items
However, they refuse to target ‘children under 16 and Top 10 politicians’. But the hitmen seem to have gone back on this last pledge and this week invited people to make donations towards bounties on the heads of President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials.
The fund for President Obama’s assassination has already reached $20,000 [£12,340].
Another site, Executive Outcomes, claims to be the biggest gun retailer on the Dark Net. ‘Our shops and warehouses are located in Midwest U.S. and our international re-shippers are located in the following countries . . . ’ it boasts, displaying flags from Canada, Australia, Germany, Russia and the UK.
Its bargains of the week include a Ruger Mini rifle, a Bushmaster M4A3 rifle, and a Browning handgun, all costing less than £1,000.
In common with DrugMarket and many others, its website is laid out in a similar way to Amazon’s with ‘Add to Cart’ and ‘Checkout’ logos.
Among ‘Commercial Services’ on offer is Rent-A-Hacker who says: ‘I’ll do anything for money. If you want me to destroy some business or a person’s life, I’ll do it!’
IsraelService is ‘a Tel Aviv-based group providing international smuggling of arms and narcotics’.
The website of Old Man Fixer’s Fixing Services says: ‘I can get you anything from wholesale drugs to wholesale weapons.
'From hacking to immigration services, insider trading to exotic pets. Crooked government officials to the best discreet lawyers. Real university degrees to snuff films.’
In the ‘Financial Services’ section, The PaypalDome offers customers access to PayPal accounts, targeting unsuspecting people who have a credit balance. Dozens of hacked account details are on offer, the price usually being around 10 per cent of the funds in the account.
The hitman network offers to kill people in North America for £6,000 or Europe for £7,400. A fund to assassinate President Obama sits at $20,000 (£12,340)
Other sites offer counterfeit £20 notes, $20 bills and €50 notes, real credit card details, stolen electronics, fake British and American passports and even Cuban cigars, which are banned in the U.S.
Most of these products and services are paid for in Bitcoins, a virtual currency that is traded online. And many sites advocate the use of secure escrow services, middle-men who ensure sellers receive the money and buyers receive the goods.
Contrary to what you may imagine, the Tor Project — the body which provides the Tor network — is a highly respected organisation partly funded by Cambridge University, the U.S. State Department, the Swedish government and other organisations campaigning for liberty and free speech.
Based in Massachusetts, the Project is dedicated to electronic privacy and the rights of people to use the internet without being snooped on or tracked by intelligence agencies or companies.
The Mail recently highlighted growing concerns over the way companies constantly gather information about our browsing habits using a computer tracking mechanism called cookies. This kind of snooping does not happen to the estimated one million people who use Tor worldwide each day.
The Tor Project — which enables people to surf the regular internet as well as the Dark Net — hopes that eventually the number of political activists and criminals who use it will be swamped by ‘ordinary’ people who just want to browse without being spied on.
Chief executive Andrew Lewman tells me Tor is simply a tool dedicated to safeguarding privacy, and claims that how that tool is used is beyond his control.
‘In the Forties and Fifties, when the U.S. was building its network of interstate highways, local law enforcement officers opposed it, arguing it would just make it easier for criminals to spread crime everywhere,’ he says.
‘Of course, you could use roads to spread crime, but you can also use them for ease of transportation, for increased commerce, for a better way of life.
‘When the first internet search engines were set up, all the concerns were over the ease with which people could go online and look for guns and drugs. Then when video streaming came online, it was the same — all about porn.
‘The fact is that criminals are early adopters of technology, and that’s what we’re seeing now. But in the long term, ordinary users will come to value their online privacy and they will want a tool like Tor, too.’
While it is impossible to snoop on the criminal communications carried by the Tor network, law enforcement agencies say it is by no means impossible to catch the people sending them, usually because they make mistakes.
Despite it's underworld connections, the network is part-funded by prestigious institutions including Cambridge University, the US State Department and the Swedish government
Lee Miles, deputy head of the National Crime Agency’s Cyber Crime Unit, says: ‘The Dark Net does provide us with some significant challenges.
‘But with the technical abilities at our disposal, with co-operation between international agencies, with resources available to governments and with some good old-fashioned trade craft, I would feel confident in saying we could identify and apprehend any criminal using it.’
This was highlighted last month when the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht, 29, founder of the Silk Road, a notorious drugs marketplace operating on the Dark Net.
They caught Ulbricht, a former physics student from Austin, Texas, not by cracking Tor’s security, but by monitoring Silk Road’s forums on the Dark Net and identifying contributors as they inadvertently left clues to their identities.
‘The fact is that criminals are early adopters of technology. But in the long term, ordinary users will come to value their online privacy and they will want a tool like Tor'Andrew Lewman, Tor chief executive
One dealer trading on Silk Road complained about a shipment of synthetic drugs from China — that were not illegal in the U.S. — being impounded by the Postal Service.
This helped agents to identify him. He had stored records that allowed officers to begin to unravel the secret network of buyers and sellers that led ever closer to Ulbricht.
In August, there was another victory for law enforcement when Eric Eoin Marques, 28, founder of Freedom Hosting, which operated on the Dark Net, was arrested.
Freedom Hosting allegedly contained 95 per cent of all the child porn hidden in the secret network. Again, exactly how Marques, who has dual Irish and U.S. citizenship, was caught remains a secret. He is fighting extradition from Ireland to the U.S.
Incredibly, none of the major agencies — including the Cyber Crime Unit — are calling for Tor to be closed down.
‘As a democracy, we respect the principle that everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, expression and privacy,’ says Mr Miles.
‘Going hand-in-hand with that, we must constantly ask ourselves how much intrusion we want compared with how much we are prepared to tolerate in a liberal society.
‘There will always be tension between the two — our desire for privacy and the inevitable enforcement of the law against those who are committing crime.’
While any individual crook using the Dark Net could be identified eventually, the anonymity it allows means vast amounts of money, time and manpower need to be expended to do it.
So it is most likely to happen only where there is a political imperative — such as when sites like the Silk Road get out of hand.
At the moment, customers and traders on most of the Dark Net go about their business untroubled by the law. In its murky channels, guns and drugs, paedophilia and murder exist alongside calls for democracy, sharia law and fascism.
Indeed, it would seem all human life is on the Dark Net, unfettered, for better or for worse. The good, the bad and the very, very ugly.