In early 2012 the CIA’s public website was taken down by Anonymous, the hacktivist group responsible for similar attacks on PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, Amazon and others.
The attack methodology — known as DDoS, or distributed denial of service — is a very old one and relies on brute computing power rather than delicate snooping and penetration techniques.
Certain corners of the press ignorantly trumpeted this assault as an example of the new frontier of digital terrorism, a threat to national security and an attack on the core operating infrastructure of the CIA.
It was actually, as one witty observer pointed out, more a case of “someone tore up a poster hung by the CIA.”
The agency’s corporate-looking site serves little purpose in the day to day operations of the agency beyond dishing out press releases and propaganda.
The operative communications are handled on secure military networks which are completely isolated from the public site, and they are for more hardened and robust.
The distinction between these networks is useful in understanding a scary hidden world of digital activity called the Deep Web or Darknet.
While most internet users merrily tweet and Facebook each other and endlessly debate freedom of speech and internet legislation on the sanitised regular — or Surface — web, there is a parallel community operating in the Deep Web.
This is a secure, private and entirely unregulated other world which can only be connected to using dedicated software.
Even the omniscient behemoth of Google doesn’t index or crawl the Deep Web — or at least it doesn’t say it does.
Anonymity is provided by the onion protocol, a multi-layer encryption system which reliably obscures the origin of internet traffic via a huge network of voluntarily-operated computers, or nodes.
Traffic is randomly routed across this network in such a way as to leave no trace of the route the data has taken. Only operators of these nodes can see a limited set of information about such routes.
Users establish an anonymised connection to the system via proven secure methods and are then able to explore this invisible Aladdin’s cave of misconduct and secrecy.
Uses include exchange of all manners of contraband including controlled and prescription drugs, extreme and illegal pornography, bomb-making and guerilla warfare manuals and materials, sensitive and stolen-to-order data of all stripes and even the genuine commission of murder.
The going rate for a hit is around £20,000, with half paid up front and the rest on completion of the murder. Clients are asked to provide as much information about the personal lives, families, distinguishing features and habits of their mark, as well as recent photos and places of work.
High profile targets cost more to whack, but they’re certainly not ruled out.
These hit men are very real and often the product of training by military special forces, with many providing a just vague enough resume of wars served in and credentials as green berets and the like. They also don’t appreciate journalists asking them questions about their work.
This is a modern version of Murder Inc for the busy, wired professional who occasionally needs someone rubbing out.
The trade of drugs represents a major proportion of Deep Web traffic.
Admirably specific descriptions of every drug imaginable — hundreds of cannabis strains, LSD, 5MeO-DMT, Valium, you name it — are presented with friendly, clear and professional instructions for payment and transaction protocol on the largest of these drug trading platforms, the historically consciously named Silk Road.
Refunds and returns policies are conspicuously absent. Paypal is not an option.
Upon completing payment you can expect your galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers or laughers to arrive via a reputable international courier to the destination of your choice.
As Mitch Hedberg said, “I love my Fed-Ex guy ’cause he’s a drug dealer and he doesn’t even know.”
Much in the way that early adopters of the Polaroid camera quickly realised that the photo lab technician needn’t know about your lewd holiday snaps, so the Deep Web is also home to a vast repository of frighteningly extreme pornography, including incest, child abuse, scat and snuff.
Even more terrifying are the enterprising souls who makes such material to order.
Thanks to the digital detachment of the onion these black markets can operate with near impunity from law enforcement, for now at least.
Of course any intelligence agency worth its salt would set up as many of its routing nodes as possible in order to build an incomplete but still useful picture of such illicit transactions, and that’s exactly what the CIA and NSA are alleged to be doing.
The size of the Deep Web is very difficult to calculate, such is its architecture, but the most conservative estimates put it at around twice the size of all of the content indexed by Google, and the more generous figures suggest it’s closer to 500 times that.
The incessant crowing about internet censorship, freedom of expression and copyright violation which populates the media columns is rendered entirely redundant by the existence of this hidden system.
If you want to get up to no good and get away with it, then you could start in worse places than the Deep Web.