My first encounter with the dark web was an envelope. A friend handed it to me and told me to look inside, to “really look” inside, and see if I thought there was anything strange about the contents. The slim package contained a screen protector for a smartphone and a small cleaning cloth sealed in a plastic wrapper, together with an official-looking receipt. I unwrapped the plastic and turned each item over until I finally spotted a hidden fold behind the label on the wrapper. Inside, under several more layers of plastic, was a gram of cocaine.

It had come from a website on a part of the internet that can’t be reached by normal means. My friend, I’ll call him Colton, had paid for the drug using a semi-anonymous currency called bitcoin and received it through the post – much more cheaply and safely than if he had bought it from a dealer in person. It was 2012 and it felt like the future had arrived.

When I visited the dark web myself, I discovered that beyond the digital stalls of the drug markets was an entire town that lived without law. I never lingered long, as browsing felt like walking through a bad neighbourhood at night. Except instead of hooded figures in the shadows were hackers lurking behind links, waiting to steal my identity and syphon off my bitcoin .

As someone who writes a lot about technology, I’m often asked about the dark web. People hear sinister tales about paedophile rings, cannibal forums and the notorious “red rooms”, where people pay to watch other people and animals being tortured, raped or even murdered. The mystery surrounding the dark web creates a lot of misconceptions, the most common of which is to confuse it with the “deep web”.

The most popular way to visualise the web is as an iceberg. In fact, if you google “what is the dark web?” the top 10 images are various iterations of an iceberg, explaining how roughly 96 per cent of the world wide web is actually hidden underwater. The surface is the clear web, containing all of the popular websites, social media channels and other content you can access through a search engine like Google. Stretching down into the depths is the deep web, which is all the databases and documents that are only accessible through an individual site’s internal indexing system. Finally, on the underbelly of the berg, is the dark web – a small but significant section only accessible through specialist software.

Occasionally, threads from the dark web spin out and reach the surface, either as news stories, like the seizure of the Silk Road marketplace in 2013, or urban legends that spread across social media, pop culture and the “Creepypasta corpus”.

Sometimes, things go in the other direction. In the early days of eBay, the online bidding site hosted “mystery box” and “mystery envelope” auctions that offered undisclosed cash prizes that almost always ended up being just a fraction of the winning bid. The scam was brought to a halt when eBay banned any kind of sweepstake or gambling, but sellers found a way round this by instead filling boxes with random assortments of items that may or may not be worth more than the price paid.

Fuelled by social media, mystery boxes shot up in popularity as people shared videos of themselves opening them, until eventually interest waned once again. To up the ante, YouTubers began sharing videos of mystery boxes that had begun to appear on the dark web, which they claimed contained everything from voodoo dolls to teddy bears stuffed with narcotics. There were dozens of videos with millions of views, yet there was something that didn’t seem quite right about them. The contents of the boxes seemed to fit the stereotypes of the dark web so much that it seemed staged.

There was only one way to know for sure, and that was to find one for myself. So it was I returned to the dark web.

The first thing you need to do to get onto the dark web is to visit the regular internet and equip yourself with the tools needed to plumb the depths. The most popular way in is Tor (The Onion Router), a browser that can be downloaded and installed in less than a minute. Despite the setup speed, browsing is relatively slow due to the technology involved: onion routing. This is a way of covering your tracks online by encrypting your connection and making data from a website pass through several locations (other people’s computers) before it reaches your computer.

It was originally developed by the US government in the 1990s to assist intelligence agencies, but in order for it to be truly effective for spies it needed a much larger network of computers, so they made it public. By the early 2010s it had become a hive of illegal activity.

In the years since I have last visited, the marketplace Colton had shown me has disappeared, as has he, so I have no idea where to begin. I need a guide. The best person for the job is Eileen Ormsby, the Marco Polo of the dark web, who after a brief Twitter exchange agrees to help. Ormsby has spent every day of the past five years journeying to the furthest reaches of the dark web and has written two books about her travels.

Before I get started, I am curious to know what is the most horrifying thing she has come across. “The most disturbing is ‘hurtcore’,” she tells me. “It’s a fetish for people who get aroused by the infliction of pain – or even torture – on another person… and it’s almost exclusively a subset of paedophile sites. It can be so sadistic that even most paedophiles are repulsed by it.”

Grim. So what’s the best way to avoid that? “Most of the child exploitation sites are behind registration walls, but it is possible to stumble upon it by clicking the wrong link occasionally,” Ormsby warns. “Child exploitation makes up a substantial amount of the dark web.”

Unfortunately, most of the gateways to the dark web are full of mysterious links, each with unmemorable urls that could lead to anything. The site I start on – Fresh Onions – is like digital Russian roulette.

One of the first links I come to is for something called a Hidden Wiki, which is like a dark web version of Wikipedia. The one I visited features the same design as the popular online directory, but the layout seems to be from the mid-2000s. The categories are much the same too except, well, darker. The featured article on the homepage is for a 12-year-old gymnast in the US. The image is a non-explicit picture of her reading a book with her feet pointed towards the camera. The caption reads: “Hunter’s sexy feet.”

Hurtcore is a fetish for people who get aroused by the infliction of pain – or even torture – on another person… and it’s almost exclusively a subset of paedophile sites. It can be so sadistic that even most paedophiles are repulsed by it

It is time to head back to Fresh Onions. Trying to balance caution and intrigue, the next link claims to be the full text of the bible, and not just one version of it. Alongside the King James Version are 21 other editions, all easily navigable and published in plain text. Something seems strange, and it isn’t just the complete lack of adverts – a common feature of dark websites. I figure there must be a hidden agenda, some kind of hacking trap or practical joke, otherwise why not just use the regular web? But as I tentatively scan the verses, expecting with each mouse scroll for a video of Rick Astley singing ‘Never gonna give you up’ to pop out, I realise that in some countries reading a bible is a subversive act.

These bible passages are representative of one of the core (positive) purposes of Tor and the dark web: to offer a refuge from regimes that suppress personal freedom and privacy. Regardless of its shady reputation, the original reason for the dark web’s existence can perhaps best be summarised in the single sentence of the Tor Project’s mission statement: “To advance human rights and freedoms by creating and deploying free and open anonymity and privacy technologies, supporting their unrestricted availability and use, and furthering their scientific and popular understanding.”

Next up is a link labelled “Donald Trump Jokes”. Given his habit of distorting truth and silencing speech, it seems an appropriate place to visit and, true to its name, it is a website dedicated entirely to one-liners about the US president. None are particularly original, nor does it seem to be the work of an insurgent, but as with the bible site I am glad it exists and that someone has taken the time to make it. Here’s an example:

Q. What’s Donald Trump’s favourite nation?

A: Discrimination

But while none of the 50 or so jokes are anywhere near as outrageous as the serial of scandals that surround the 45th president on an almost daily basis, there are other sites dedicated to Trump that are far more sinister. In 2016, when President Trump was still only president-elect Donald Trump, a website appeared on the dark web calling for donations towards his assassination, as well as that of vice president-elect Mike Pence.

The “Terminating Donald Trump” site, which claimed to be the work of a “well-known underground organisation”, asked for people to send bitcoin to facilitate the killing. “The consequences of having Donald Trump and Mike Pence as leaders of the free world is extremely dangerous,” the page stated. “The plan we need to implement requires a lot of money to pay for the equipment.” When I covered the story two years ago, the crowdfunding effort had raised 115 bitcoins – the equivalent of more than £600,000 at today’s prices.

Clearly that wasn’t enough, or they didn’t succeed, or – most likely – it was nothing more than a scam feeding off ill-sentiment that was flourishing on the surface web. Other crowdfunded assassination targets have included any number of public figures. Campaigns that raised significant funds have included proposed hits on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and former Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke, whose tenure preceded the 2008 global financial crisis. All remain alive and well, although it is believed that killings of less high-profile folk have indeed been negotiated on the dark web.  

Not wanting to stray into the murder markets, the next link I follow is for something called Hidden Guru, and following it leads me to another website that looks at least a decade old. Written on the page in simple text is a series of questions: “Do you feel life has more to offer? Do you believe there is more to reality than what your five senses can grasp? Did you ever experience a coincidence too great to be a coincidence? The Hidden Guru has the answers to the questions you don’t even know how to ask.”

Although payment isn’t necessary, the site’s creator has included a bitcoin address in case anyone wants to send a donation. I check the wallet and discover it has received 19.2 bitcoins – the equivalent of £100,000 at the time of writing. Choosing not to donate, I type in my question: “Where can I find a mystery box?”

The response is instant: “Your call was heard. The Hidden Guru will reflect on it and reply through unexpected means.” A few seconds later, my phone begins to ring.

The call is from an unknown number, and for a moment I think it might just be my guru. “Is this Anthony?” a chirpy female voice asks when I pick up the phone. “Erm, yes?” She continues: “I’m calling from [PR agency], and I have a story…” I end the call as politely as I could and continued on my quest.

It is time to enter the marketplaces that have become synonymous with the dark web. There is no use trying Silk Road – the site Colton visited back in 2012 – as that has been out of action since an FBI operation took it down in 2013. At the time of its closure, the FBI said it had “smashed the hornet’s nest” and was in the process of rounding up the hornets. Anyone who’s tried to chase hornets after smashing their nest won’t be too surprised to learn that the FBI hasn’t been very successful.

Indeed, even without Silk Road, there are now dozens of marketplaces currently in operation on the dark web, many of which abide by the same self-regulating free market rules as those established by the original model. It’s possible to buy everything from heroin and hacking services to bundles of counterfeit currency. Some things are still off limits though. Self-imposed ethics for major marketplaces often include things like no child pornography – or “cheese pizza”, as it’s often referred to in forums – no live action torture videos and no weapons of mass destruction. But this is not to say there aren’t markets where these things can be acquired.

One shady marketplace called Gold and Diamonds claims to sell everything from blood diamonds to rhino horns, justifying the sale of such items by pointing to the questionable ethical records of multinational companies such as Apple and Pfizer. While it’s possible in some cases to track down individual vendors and customers, one dark web expert explained to me that it’s much harder to police the site’s administrators due to the lack of a centralised entity running them.

"They’re decentralised, which means that websites such as drug forums or hacking marketplaces are being duplicated between all visitors and basically cannot be closed or shut down,” Liran Sorani, who specialises in cyber businesses at the tech firm Webhose, says. “Such anonymity makes it the perfect place for criminals.” The irony of course is that such sites can only exist thanks to a network developed by the very people now trying to police it.

To the dark side...

In five easy steps

1. Download the Tor web browser from the Tor Project website 
2. Run the downloaded file and select ‘Start Tor Browser’
3. When the web browser opens, that’s it, you’re on the dark web!
4. If it’s your first time, a good starting point is an index site like The Hidden Wiki – but be careful what links you click on
5. For extra safety and anonymity you can use a VPN (virtual private network), such as VyprVPN, Express VPN or NordVPN

Sticking with the relatively righteous marketplaces, I first head to Dream Market, which claims to have been operating for the past five years. Much like online marketplaces on the clear web, such as Amazon and eBay, Dream Market cultivates confidence between buyers and sellers through rating systems, “trusted vendor” labels, escrow protection for buyers and strict rules for sellers. “Scammers are not tolerated and are quickly identified as such,” the site’s guidelines state.

In a handy search bar at the top of the site I type in “mystery box”. Among nearly 13,000 results, only one listing actually claims to be a mystery box – but there is something strange about it.

Firstly, at 0.2289 bitcoins, it isn’t cheap. That’s about £1,250 at the time of writing, a budget I suspect The Independent might not be willing to stretch to considering the nature of the product. Secondly, despite the seller’s promise that “surprise gifts can be magical”, 82 per cent of people who had rated them had given a thumbs down. So while the alleged contents of the mystery box are an assortment of precious stones, jewellery and high-end electronic goods like drones, I decide to check with my guide whether it is worth the gamble.

“Mystery boxes are just silly,” Eileen Ormsby tells me. “The ones on YouTube are primarily total hoaxes invented by the YouTubers themselves for the clicks. There’s no serial killers ‘getting rid of evidence’ by sending it to a teenage YouTube star. Of course, the popularity has meant that now there are dark web vendors offering mystery boxes for sale – but they are just random junk.”

Sure enough, none of the other dark web marketplaces I check out appear to offer any credible mystery boxes. And watching the YouTube videos again, it certainly seems unlikely that anyone would send an entire shopping bag of dirty women’s underwear to someone paying hundreds of pounds for one. After contacting a few of these YouTubers, none are able to offer any proof that they actually acquired them on the dark web. So what about the “shadow web” – the secret badlands of the web’s Wild West? After five years of roaming, Ormsby says she’s still to find this mythical place.

“Many people believe there is a further, deeper, darker section of the dark web, called ‘Mariana’s Web’ or the ‘shadow web’, where only a select few discover the key to unlock the greatest horrors,” she says. “Snuff movies, of course, and worse: gladiator fights to the death; a collection of psychopaths who play demented games of conkers, swinging babies by their ankles to try to crush the skull of their opponent’s child; a man who created human sex dolls by severing the limbs of girls and women and removing their vocal cords, while keeping them alive. [But] they’re all just creepy stories.”

The closest you can come is the notorious Red Rooms, where it is said people are tortured to death in front of a webcam while those who have paid to watch type in increasingly cruel commands in a chat box. While Ormsby’s own investigations have never uncovered them, there is some evidence to suggest such places exist behind multiple proxies and paywalls.

On 20 February 2015, investigators in the Philippines arrested Australian Peter Scully and charged him with the production and dissemination of sadistic child pornography, which he sold through pay-per-view channels to an international paedophile ring operating on the dark web. The most horrific video allegedly produced was Daisy’s Destruction, which involved the brutal torture and rape of an 18-month-old toddler. Police who viewed the video called it “the worst we have encountered in our years of campaigning against child pornography”. Already convicted on charges of human trafficking and rape, Scully faces further indictments including for torture and murder.

If that’s what lies within the shadow web, I am ready to give up my search. My friend Colton had a theory. He used to say that if you can think of it, and it’s physically possible, then someone, somewhere has already done it. It’s loosely derived from Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, though Colton's argument tended to rely on examples relating to various forms of bestiality.

Nowhere is there more proof of this argument than the dark web. From Cannibal Cafes, to countdowns to the end of the world, this hidden part of the web allows humanity to realise its darkest desires and weirdest preoccupations. But as it turns out, like the ontological argument, so much of it is actually impossible to prove – widely talked about but little seen.

While some of these grim or odd sites might exist, the dark web should not be distilled to the cliches of drugs, hackers and porn. It is neither good nor bad; it is simply a technology that allows good or bad things to happen.

The numerous data scandals that have beset both governments and corporations like Facebook in recent years have had significant consequences for many individuals. Tools like the Tor network offer people the ability to take back control of their privacy. And, whatever your overall stance on the dark web, privacy was the primary force behind its development; and it is a right that deserves to be protected. As famed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden once put it: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Only a bottomless barrel of bitcoins and connections to the seediest segments of the criminal underworld would ever really show how dark the web’s dark underbelly gets. Its inherent secrecy has made it a bed from which myths can grow and self-perpetuate, even if the depths are rather clearer to me than they were when I was first handed that envelope by Colton.

If I keep looking, I’m sure to discover more, but I’d be far from keen to click on a link to a Red Room if ever I found one – or, for that matter, to open a mystery box if I ever received one. Besides, I’m still waiting to hear back from the Hidden Guru.

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