ARUN RATH, HOST:
Get ready now as we take you on a voyage to the dark side - of the Internet, to be precise. There's an entire world that's invisible to your standard web browser, parts of the Internet known as the deep web, the hidden web, the dark web. The tools to get there are just a few clicks away and more and more people who want to browse the web anonymously are signing on. And that's our cover story today, a peak into the hidden side of the Internet.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: Fans of the series "House of Cards" are probably already familiar with the deep web. It was worked into the plot of season two Here the character Lucas gets a little crash course from one of his reporters.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
SEBASTIAN ARCELUS: (as Lucas Goodwin) All right. Hold on. The deep web, I've heard of that. Oh, yeah, yeah. Ninety-six percent of the internet isn't accessible through standard search engines. Most of it's useless but it's where you go to find anything and everything: child porn, Bitcoin laundering, mail order of narcotics, hackers for hire.
RATH: I asked Wired reporter Kim Zetter if "House of Cards" got it right.
KIM ZETTER: Yeah, but that there should be a distinction between what's called the deep web and the dark web.
RATH: Let's start there. The terms get a little murky, but there are two main categories.
ZETTER: The deep web is anything that's not accessible through the commercial search engines like Google and Bing. Things stored in databases that these search engines won't pick up or things that are behind a subscription firewall. Like Nexus Lexus won't get picked up by the search engines.
RATH: Then there's the dark net, a specific part of that hidden web where you can operate in total anonymity.
ZETTER: There are a lot of drug sites. They sell weapons, guns, tasers, hacking tools and even you can hire an assassin. And it's not just illicit activities. We also see political dissidents have forums that are let's say off of the Internet grid.
RATH: But it's not the forums for dissidents that usually make the news. If you've heard of the dark net, it's probably because of a site called the Silk Road, an underground website famously shut down by the government last fall.
ZETTER: They were selling, you know, just a smorgasbord of drugs - LSD, heroin, methadone. What quite often happens is the ones that get exposed, they make silly mistakes. And in this case, Ross Ulbricht, who's alleged to have been the founder and the owner of Silk Road, made some mistakes in some postings that helped identify him.
RATH: Already there's a Silk Road II that's popped up to replace the Silk Road. Are they safe as long as they avoid, you know, silly mistakes?
ZETTER: They may be, but not necessarily. I mean, sometimes law enforcement gets lucky. There are sometimes ways to locate a server that's hosting. And then what happens is the server may get taken down without any arrests at all. But then it'll pop up again.
RATH: So how do you access this hidden part of the Internet? Let's go back to that clip from "House of Cards."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
ARCELUS: (as Lucas Goodwin) How do you access it?
JIMMI SIMPSON: (as Gavin Orsay) It's actually pretty easy. I can show you if you want.
ARCELUS: (as Lucas Goodwin) Yeah, I'm curious.
SIMPSON: (as Gavin Orsay) Mind if I...
ARCELUS: (as Lucas Goodwin) Go ahead.
SIMPSON: (as Gavin Orsay) Okay. First thing you need is TOR.
RATH: TOR is the main browser people use to access this part of the web. It's an acronym for The Onion Router. The onion refers to the layers you go through to disguise your identity. TOR is free. Anyone can download it. It's a simple site that looks like a Firefox browser. But if you take the right steps it's very different.
When you connect to a site through TOR your computer goes through a series of other computers and bounces around anonymously until it reaches a destination.
RUNA SANDVIK PRIVACY AND SECURITY RESEARCHER: No one will be able to see that you're the one visiting those websites. And the websites will not be able to see that you're the one visiting them either. They will only be able to see that you're using TOR to do something.
RATH: Runa Sandvik is a privacy and security researcher. She's a former contractor with the TOR Project. Normally whenever you visit a website, your Internet service provider can see that you're visiting that website. Sandvik says that if you use TOR, the location that you appear to be in will change.
RESEARCHER: You can be in D.C. and you can sent your traffic through Germany, Sweden and Russia, for example. And the website that you're visiting will see that someone in Russia is visiting your site, not you in D.C.
RATH: So who created TOR? Some open source hacker activists, right? Nope. It was the U.S. Navy, the Naval Research Lab to be precise. Again, Runa Sandvik.
RESEARCHER: The purpose was initially to protect the communications of the U.S. military. But the challenge here is if you have this anonymity system and every traffic going into the system is the U.S. Navy and everything that pops out of the system is the U.S. Navy, then you're not that anonymous. So by opening up the system to everyone, different groups of people can hide in a big crowd of anonymous TOR users.
RATH: Now when we hear about TOR in the news it usually is connected with some sort of sordid activity. Do we have a sense of how much of TOR activity is about illicit activity?
RESEARCHER: No. So TOR was developed with this concept of privacy by design. There is no way you can figure out who's using TOR to do what or how many websites of a certain category exist within the TOR network.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: We don't know how many of these illicit sites exist but a new search engine accessible through TOR is starting to gather that information the way Google does. It's called Grams. Wired's Kim Zetter reported on it.
ZETTER: It looks exactly like Google with the same colorful lettering and grounds. It even has an I-feel-lucky button. We tested it and it showed up some high quality heroin. You can find guns. The listings will tell you where the seller is, what country so you know where it's coming from when you order it. And they're also talking about putting in customer reviews of the vendors.
RATH: You talked to the creator of the site. What was his motivation behind this?
ZETTER: Well, he saw that people were having trouble locating what they wanted and also distinguishing between the reputable sellers and the disreputable ones.
RATH: Now do tools like Grams that make the dark net more accessible to more people, does that also make those areas more susceptible to being found out by law enforcement?
ZETTER: Yeah, I mean, the quiet sites go under the radar and Silk Road got on the radar after it was covered by the Gawker website. And that caused people in congress to point the Justice Department to it and demand that they do something about it. So, yeah, obviously when something becomes prominent it's going to get into the crosshairs of law enforcement.
RATH: But Runa Sandvik says there's a lot more going on than criminal activity.
RESEARCHER: There is human rights activists, journalists, military, law enforcement, normal people. It just really depends on what you want to do.
RATH: TOR's executive director is working with victims of domestic abuse who need to communicate without being tracked by their abusers. TOR is also used by Chinese dissidents who can't access sites like Twitter. And it became a valuable tool during the Arab Spring.
RESEARCHER: We saw that the numbers were skyrocketing. For example, in Iran TOR usage went from 7,000 users in 2010 to 40,000 users two years later. And in Syria, from 600 users to 15,000 users in just three years.
RATH: TOR use jumped again in the last year since the revelation of the NSA surveillance program. Sandvik estimates that there are close to a million daily users worldwide. With Americans increasingly concerned about being monitored online by corporations or their government, that number is certain to grow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.