A "hidden" Internet hosting invisible web sites where billions of dollars in illegal trade occurs: the Dark Web. That is the digital underworld recently exposed with the FBI seizure of the Silk Road drug marketplace.
Many of us have a hard time locating a USB port on a laptop. I'll spend a half hour later today trying to pair the Bluetooth in my wife's SUV to her new iPhone.
And there's a "Dark" Web?
The FBI has been trying to shut down the Silk Road for nearly two years of its two-and-a-half year existence. This was the Amazon of the drug world. Instead of selling Kindles, gold chains and DVDs, it was hawking heroin, cocaine and LSD. In fact, the site listed 13,000 varieties of controlled substances, all neatly categorized for easy browsing.
According to the complaint filed in the Southern District of New York, the Silk Road marketplace featured 159 listings under the "Services" category. Most were hacking related, including one to access Facebook and Twitter accounts so that customers could "read, write, upload, delete and view all personal info." Another offered "22 different methods" for hacking ATMs.
The site also promoted a handy directory of ne'er-do-wells. The contacts were listed as "connects" for anonymous bank accounts, counterfeit bills, firearms and ammunition -- as well as hit men from 10 countries. That's right, point-and-click murder for hire.
The alleged mastermind behind this underground bazaar was Robert William Ulbricht, and as with any mega villain worth his salt, he has a cool alter ego: "Dread Pirate Roberts." He was arrested last week in San Francisco. Eight others were arrested Tuesday.
What does it take to run an illicit web supermarket? Here are the tools that Ulbricht purportedly employed:
- The Tor network – It's a little like the peer-to-peer concept made famous by Napster: a decentralized system spread out among thousands of relay servers. Also known as "The Onion Router," it is designed to cloak users and maintain that anonymity by making it practically impossible to identify and locate the computers hosting or accessing a website. Tor requires the downloading of a network compatible browser, a modified version of Firefox. In fact, that's apparently how Ulbricht got busted: via a security hole in the Firefox browser.
- Bitcoin -- Silk Road didn't simply accept your Visa, MasterCard or American Express. Or PayPal. In order to be a high-tech hooligan, you have to use untraceable funds. And that's where the digital currency Bitcoin came into play. And it worked quite well. This thriving enterprise generated sales to over 100,000 buyers driving revenues of $9.5 Bitcoins, according to court documents. That's roughly $1.2 billion at recent exchange rates.
There are other online "retailers" dealing in illegal goods lurking in the shadows of the Dark Web. And Silk Road, The Sequel is being developed right now, according to Eileen Ormsby, a Melbourne-based journalist and blogger at allthingsvice.com. She cites a source saying there are "at least 5 publicly stated projects with the said aim of becoming 'Silk Road 2.0' and many more gathering info and building alliances."
Ormsby says that this time there won't be a lone wolf guarding the hen house. This time it will be a number of players offering a potentially open-source platform.
"The main contenders are a team of allegedly trusted and verified Silk Road vendors who are working together to recreate the black market virtually identically," she writes in a post dated Oct. 6. "A forum has already been created that mirrors the original and its members have been given a sneak peek at the layout of the new marketplace, which will operate under the same philosophy and rules as the old one."
The creeping impact of the Dark Web underscores the growing availability of unlawful merchandise, from tools of terror to the designer drug of the day. Rather than putting your health and reputation at peril in a risky rendezvous with an arms/drugs/death dealer down by the docks at midnight, you can stock up on the device of your vice from the comfort of your home.
Being a criminal – on either side of a shady sales transaction – is getting easier, more profitable – and too convenient.
Hal M. Bundrick is a Certified Financial Planner™ and former financial advisor and senior investment specialist for Wall Street firms. He writes for TheMoneyPivot.com. Follow him on Twitter: @HalMBundrick. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.