From House of Cards to Online Hitmen: A N00b’s Exploration of the Deep Web

Picture: NetFlix

House of Cards: Netflix

By Sam Shedden


Winning article at the Scottish Student Journalism Awards 2014 in the category Feature of the year

“Right now I can just tell you it will probably be something between 8k-15k euros.

Some general questions I need to know/that are very useful to know:

  • Does the person live alone or with others?
  • Does the person have any guns or knows professional self-defense techniques?
  • Does the persons place have any security systems or such?
  • How do you want me to do it? Does it have to look like an accident or something or doesn’t it matter if it looks like a murder?”

Did I read that right, did that say “murder”?! What the hell am I doing?

The above questions came via encrypted email from a person who claims to be an online hitman cheerfully named Unfriendly Solution. I was on the deep web and had just emailed him/her  vaguely asking what their prices were. I should say now I do not want to have anyone killed, I was just very intrigued (and sceptical) that assassins could be hired over the internet. I should first explain what brought me to be emailing this supposed assassin.

Unfriendly Solution's Page

Unfriendly Solution’s Page

On Valentine’s Day this year season two of the political thriller House of Cards was released on Netflix. During one of the episodes a journalist Lucas Goodwin (played by Sebastian Arcelus) goes onto the deep web to try to make contact with a hacker. For many this will have been there first introduction to the deep web. So what is it?

Deep web, the dark net or any of the other sinister names that are used are all rather vague phrases. In simple terms the Deep Web is comprised of sites that are not indexed in search engines, a harmless example would be sites that require authentication to enter. The size of the deep web is immensely vast. Due to the fact it is continually expanding, like the surface web, as more pages get added it is difficult to know for sure it’s true size. Common estimates are that the deep web accounts for 96% of all the pages of the internet as a whole.

Media hacking hysteria. Image: Weekly World News

Media hacking hysteria. Image: Weekly World News

The deep web exists outside of the law. It has a nefarious reputation as the dark underbelly of the internet, where anything can be bought or sold regardless of its legality. It’s an intimidating realm where hackers offer their services as digital hired guns on the same page as hitmen who claim to be willing and able to kill anyone for a fee.  In House of Cards and the mainstream media it is portrayed as a particularly nasty place. I wanted to find out if there is more to the Deep Web than black markets and sinister hackers. Taking my lead from House of Cards I also wanted to discover more about hacking and exactly what exactly you can get these people to do if you were so inclined.

If you want to access the deep web you will need to get a special browser called, Tor. Tor will essentially take you on a very roundabout route to the site you are trying to access. Imagine going from Glasgow to Edinburgh via Oban, Inverness and Dundee, Tor will take your connection through multiple routers rather than the simple A to B that the surface web does. This is what makes you harder to find (not completely invisible) and makes it such an invaluable tool for those trying to protect their anonymity.

It is not an easy place to navigate for a noob like myself. You need to know the address of a site if you wish to visit it or use some of the more established links available on the Hidden Wiki, a Wikipedia style page packed with links to legal and illegal services. Hackers were offering to crack Facebook accounts, hack corporate servers or plant child pornography on a victims computer if their fee was paid. Can anything good from something like the deep web?

“Deep web offers the ability to be able to express freedom of speech where otherwise that might not be possible.” Belial, the 29-year-old co-creator of Hackers Voice a UK online hacking magazine , told me.  Hacker’s voice believes information should be free.

“You can use the deep web to find and expose criminals.  If there is something that needs to be fixed and you have the ability to fix it. Do you sit and do nothing or fix it?”

“Others are involved in enabling secure communication to journalists in countries where its difficult for them to express their views.” added the English hacker.

Clearly hackers can use the deep web for positive activities but why then is there so much illicit trade on deep web, surely the fast bulk of it must be opportunistic scammers?

An alleged male Scottish hacker, who I got in contact with through a mutual acquaintance and only wanted to be known as B told me more,

“A lot of the services could very likely be real, take your example hitmen for hire these people have used newspaper personals, pubs and friends to ply their trade for decades, the net is merely a new platform ”

I was beginning to regret my naïve happy-go-lucky surfing in this world I did not fully understand.

“Think of them [hackers] as a great big Doberman, would you walk over to him to see what he is capable of? If you avoid hackers they are pretty unlikely to come after you. Mess about with either and the end result will never be a pretty picture.  Like the Doberman they guard a gate, they are in their yard, best not to climb over the fence to look around.”

B talked about the extent of a hacker’s reach in our digital society,

“We live in a binary age where software packages like Norton and McAfee (please never ever these pieces of junk) tell you that you are save, it’s all an illusion”

As I glared at the box which contained my copy of McAfee virus protection I wondered if accessing the deep web was putting my security at risk?

“In answer to your question the pitfalls are everything from wrecking your machine, to wrecking your life. As a novice you do not belong there and away is the safest place to be.”

B had in depth knowledge of cracking, which is breaking  and removing the security of software although as it is illegal he at no point admitted to participating in cracking. So what kind of things could he do :

“I’m no white knight or tree hugger but I personally get my jollies hitting scum who pray on the defenseless, child abusers. A lovely little Trojan and sweet little key logger hide it where they hunt, gather all their grubby little secrets then put them on show for the world to see.

You ask what could I do, in today’s age Sam the question is what can’t I do”

Although my venture into the deep web was trouble-free the rampant criminality a is menacing presence. Fascinating it may be but perhaps I will leave it to the hackers.

Follow Sam on twitter: @SamShedden

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