For years, one needed to be a hacker to enter the dark web, a shadowy part of the internet so shrouded in secrecy that it was accessible only through special browsers and untraceable even by the world’s most sophisticated security agencies.
Not anymore. Once considered the sole domain of hackers, coders and black marketeers, the deep web can now be cracked by anyone within minutes. Thousands, even in India, are surfing the web’s dark underbelly at any given time, shopping for drugs, guns, and prescription pills.
Posing as an eager buyer for a variety of products, including drugs such as heroin, prescription pills such as anti-anxiety medication Xanax and weapons such as guns, this correspondent went on to dark web marketplaces such as AlphaBay, UK Guns, and Drug Marketplace. These websites require invites that used to be difficult to come by. However, in 2016, these invite links are available on websites like PasteBin that can be found even through an elementary Google search.
On a site that looked like eBay, buyers rate sellers by ‘trust level’’ — speed of delivery, quantity and quality of products. Some of the shops that shipped to India had stellar reviews. A customer named COX50 said of one shop: “Best H (heroin) I’ve ever got off the net.”
Secure in their online anonymity, sellers converse easily and openly with buyers. “Thank you for thinking of us. Yes, we ship H to India, no limit on the buy. Please do not hesitate to ask any questions,” one of the shops replied to a query. It wouldn’t be their first time, they added.
According to Tor, a software maker whose browser is used to access the Darknet, more than 20,000 Indian use it daily. But, the company counts only direct connections to its servers.
“People also set up virtual private networks (VPNs) cloaking their location. So, this number is indicative of the Darknet’s popularity in India,” said Rahul Sasi, co-founder of Machine, an internet security company that monitors the dark web.
Heroin is “sent in small packages” in “the safest way of shipping,” the shop assured. “It takes 5-10 days to ship to India. The seller revealed they use snail mail that one “would not have to sign for”.
This method would be nearly undetectable by customs officials, said additional commissioner of customs, Vinayak Azaad, who has been working in contraband control since 1994.
Azaad said sniffer dogs were of limited use. “They only sniff for one thing at a time. At airports, it is explosives, weapons.” Even when dogs are trained to find narcotics, he added, “thousands of packages come every day. Searches are random. So, unless the police has prior information, it is very difficult to find the correct shipment.”
The Indian youth is no stranger to the dark web either. “It used to be 100% coders, but now 70% people are coders and 30% normal folks,” said Sasi.
“Last year I ordered some blotters (LSD) from it. The package came in a week — a CD with my drugs packed inside,” a 23-year-old banker said.
But the Darknet has its brighter side, too.
During the Arab Spring – the Tunisian mass uprising that sparked similar revolutions in other countries — activists used Tor to anonymously pass on messages. Political dissidents and journalists across the world have also been using Darknet to cover digital tracks to escape persecution by oppressive regimes.
Earlier this year, Facebook told a technology news portal that a million of its users accessed the social media network through Tor.
“Women use Tor to research family planning info while domestic violence survivors browse the web while staying anonymous and untracked by former or current abusers,” a Tor spokesperson said.
However, it is difficult to control the dark web. In 2013, after a drug market called Silk Road was busted, many sites cropped up in its place, some even by the same name. The website’s founder Ross Ulbricht is serving life sentence for murder in the US. Similarly, child pornography sites such as PedoEmpire continue to operate chatrooms and serve content despite its founder Mattew David Graham being jailed in Australia since March 2016.
“It’s about demand and supply. If you take away the moral angle, this is capitalism at its purest,” said digital ethnographer Angad Chowdhry.
A Glock-17 semi-automatic pistol and ammunition could be purchased for $500, a gun seller on the dark web said. Glocks are legally priced at $590 with $100 per magazines. For prescription pill dealers, three out of four sellers list India as country of origin. Drugs such as Tramadol, which are legal in India but banned in the US and other countries are big moneymakers.
“It is very difficult to book people (carrying prescription pills) under the Customs Act except for carrying commercial quantities…. (but) there is no hard and fast rule for that (what constitutes a commercial quantity),” Azad said.
Cybercrime is big business in India. According to a report filed by Delhi Police, cyber crimes cost India Rs 24,630 crore in 2013. “Criminals have always been more savvy than law enforcement agencies and in this day of digitalisation, there’s scope for improvement in technology given to police,” said Azad. In the meantime, crooks have never had it so easy.