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As we learn more about the extent of the NSA’s monitoring of our digital lives, we want to take a look at one part of the internet where people are completely anonymous.
It’s called the “deep web.” You need special software to get there and what you do there is essentially untraceable.
But as Time magazine’s Lev Grossman reports, some officials now believe the deep web has become an “electronic haven for thieves, child pornographers, human traffickers, forgers, assassins and peddlers of state secrets and loose nukes.”
On the origins of the deep web
“The real irony of this story, is this thing was built by the US government, in particular, the US Naval research laboratory. They worked out the theory in the 90’s and then launched it in 2003, and they had very good reasons for doing it. The deep web is a vital tool for intelligence agents, law enforcement, political dissidents in foreign countries with oppressive governments are trained in it by the state department.”
On the software needed to access the deep web
“Search engines like Google and Bing, you know, they use Spiders and other kinds of software to crawl the web, as it were. But you can only see web sites like the Silk Road if you’re working through Tor. Tor actually does two things: It keeps you anonymous, but it also allows you to see this whole range of web sites that would otherwise be invisible to you. Google doesn’t work with Tor; Bing doesn’t work with Tor. They only are interested in the conventional web. So this stuff just stays off the grid.”
On striking a balance between privacy and accountability
“If people know who you are online, then you’re responsible for what you do there, and whatever you do has consequences. That’s on the one hand. And we’re trying to balance that with the need for privacy, the need for people to keep their personal information off the net and out of the public eye, because there are things that people deserve to keep private, and technologies like Tor can do that. Unfortunately, technologies like Tor are also subject to abuse. And as it turns out, owing to various basic flaws in human nature, when people enter a situation where they can do things and not be held accountable for them, they tend to do some very bad things indeed.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW. And as we learn more about the extent of the NSA's monitoring of our digital lives, we're going to take a look now at one part of the Internet where people remain anonymous. It is called the deep Web. It is not indexed by search engines like Google or Bing. You need special software called Tor to get there, software that was developed by the government.
But now officials are concerned that the deep Web has become an electronic haven for thieves, child pornographers and human traffickers, especially after the high-profile shutdown of Silk Road, which was allegedly using the deep Web to sell illegal drugs.
Lev Grossman has been diving into the deep Web. He co-reported a cover story about it for Time magazine, and he is with us now. Welcome.
LEV GROSSMAN: Thank you.
HOBSON: So beyond Silk Road, what else is part of the deep Web?
GROSSMAN: Well, the deep Web is a very broad and large thing, and you have sites like Silk Road, which are criminal; the Silk Road deals with drugs and things like that. But then more broadly you have a whole spectrum of criminal activity that exists on the deep Web and thrives there because of the anonymity that it provides.
There's quite a bit of child pornography. You'll see trafficking in weapons, in fake IDs, hacking software, stolen credit cards, really, you know, anything contraband that you could sell over the Net gets sold there.
HOBSON: Well, tell us about where it came from because this was created by the Navy, essentially.
GROSSMAN: Well, the real irony of this story, is this thing was built by the U.S. government, in particular, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. They worked out the theory in the '90s and then launched it in 2003. And they had very good reasons for doing it. The deep Web is a vital tool for intelligence agents, law enforcement. Political dissidents in foreign countries with oppressive governments are trained in it by the State Department.
So you have this funny situation where on the one hand you've got the FBI trying to crack Tor and crack the deep Web and find people on it, while at the same time it's still to this day being funded by the State Department and the Department of Defense.
HOBSON: Well, therefore, is it easy for the government, and of course we've been hearing all about everything that the NSA sees and can track. Since the government is a funder of this, can they pretty much see everything that's going on within the deep Web?
GROSSMAN: Well, that's one of those funny things. The people who built this system, we should really get them to work on, you know, the health care websites. They did such an incredibly good job that as far as is known, theoretically there is no way to find someone on the deep Web.
One of the documents that was leaked by Edward Snowden this summer was an NSA study of Tor, and basically they concluded we have no idea how to crack this thing, and we can get people if they screw up, sometimes if we're lucky, but otherwise this thing is ironclad.
HOBSON: Well, why aren't the websites that fall into this category being tracked by Google and Bing? Why aren't they indexed by the big search engines the way that most other sites are?
GROSSMAN: Well, search engines like Google and Bing, you know, they use Spiders and other kinds of software to crawl the Web, as it were. But you can only see websites like the Silk Road if you're working through Tor.
Tor actually does two things. It keeps you anonymous, but it also allows you to see this whole range of websites that would otherwise be invisible to you. And Google doesn't work with Tor; Bing doesn't work with Tor. They only are interested in the conventional Web. So this stuff just stays off the grid.
HOBSON: In your reporting on this, you focused on one of the characters that has become more well-known recently, ever since he was found out for running Silk Road. I'm talking about the Texan 29-year-old Ross Ulbricht. He was arrested last month. Tell us about him and what you learned about him and how he was able to take advantage of this part of the Web.
GROSSMAN: Well, he's an interesting character who seems to have been motivated in part by libertarian politics. He seems to have been interested in the idea of a marketplace that was not regulated by the government, and he looked around for someplace where he might set one up, and he found it.
He found it on the deep Web using not only Tor, the deep Web technology, but also bitcoin, which is a new kind of currency, which is based on very strong cryptography, which like the deep Web, it's very hard to track, it's very hard to trace. If you - it's not like using a credit card. When you use bitcoin to buy something or sell something, it leaves very little trace anywhere, and it's very hard to track down who owns what bitcoins.
HOBSON: And the defenders of bitcoin would say that they would much rather that it be used for legal things, which it is most of the time, that they were happy to see Silk Road shut down because it took this thing off of their back. But could Silk Road have operated without bitcoin and this currency that can't be tracked, like a U.S. dollar?
GROSSMAN: It couldn't have. And the reason I say that is that it was tried many times. There were many precursors to the Silk Road. Tor was launched formally in 2003, and after it was launched, there were a number of other people who tried selling drugs over it, and they always got away with it for a while, but every once in a while the FBI would get wind of it, they'd subpoena PayPal or whoever was handling the financial transactions, and that was it, game over.
HOBSON: And when the FBI finally did get Ulbricht, you report that some there at the FBI are concerned that the laws that they had to use to do that were outdated.
GROSSMAN: That's right. The, you know, basic legal tools that they use in cases like this were developed in 1994, and I don't have to tell you that the Internet was a very different place in 1994.
HOBSON: Those were the days of AOL and Prodigy and I don't even know what else.
GROSSMAN: The whole landscape was different. So, you know, the weapons they have to fight this war against people like Ulbricht are way out of date, and unfortunately, technology tends to evolve a lot faster than the law does. And, you know, they're working to get things updated, but it happens very slowly, and as it does, they're in an arms race with these guys who are developing tech, and the tech always wins.
HOBSON: So what did you learn in reporting all of this, Lev, about where we're headed and whether the deep Web is getting bigger or smaller? I see that according to a Pew study, 86 percent of Internet users have tried to hide some online activity.
GROSSMAN: Well, what's apparently to me is that we sort of as a society that lives more and more of our lives online, we are trying to strike a balance between being visible, being seen on the Web and therefore responsible for our actions. If you people know who you are online, then you're responsible for what you do there, and whatever you do has consequences. That's on the one hand.
And we're trying to balance that with the need for privacy, the need for people to keep their personal information off the net and out of the public eye because there are things that people deserve to keep private, and technologies like Tor can do that.
Unfortunately, technologies like Tor are also subject to abuse. And as it turns out, owing to various basic flaws in human nature, when people enter a situation where they can do things and not be held accountable for them, they tend to do some very bad things indeed. And that's what's going on. So we're trying to find that balance, and I don't think we've found it yet.
HOBSON: Lev Grossman co-reported the piece in Time magazine all about the deep Web, where drugs, porn and murder hide online. Lev, thanks so much.
GROSSMAN: Thank you very much.
HOBSON: And this note, a new version of the Silk Road website is up and running this week. Forbes reports it's selling drugs like marijuana and ecstasy. And bitcoin, the virtual currency Lev was talking about, hit a new high today.
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HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.