The dark web, as you probably know, is the part of the internet that’s inaccessible to Google. Often framed as a giant dungeon of child porn and drugs, the dark web also includes such banalities as corporate intranets and peer-to-peer networks—but it’s also genuinely home to much of the internet’s child porn and drugs.
Lawyer turned author and journalist Eileen Ormsby is one of the world’s leading experts on the dark web. In 2011 she visited the online drugs marketplace Silk Road and became so captivated she wrote a book on the subject. This led to a broader fascination with the dark web, which resulted in another five years of investigation and another book: The Darkest Web: Drugs Death and Destroyed Lives.
Ahead of Eileen’s upcoming Vivid talk in Sydney, we got on the phone to hear what she’s learned from a near-decade of trawling humanity’s darkest corners. Eileen talked to us about how the dark web has become a sanctuary for hitmen and child abuse communities, and how revealing its secrets has affected her personally.
VICE: Hey Eileen, your interest in all this started with Silk Road. What was it that captivated you about the site, and the dark web in general?
Eileen Ormsby: I’d heard about Silk Road through people who were using the site. As someone who is a strong advocate for drug reform, it fascinated me. Prohibition isn’t working. People are dying, yet this site had this great community and philosophy that anyone should be allowed to choose what they put in their body. They even had a doctor on their staff giving harm reduction advice, in an effort to keep their customers alive and healthy. I met several people involved in the running of Silk Road who weren’t bad or scary people. They believed in the philosophy of the site and that they were doing things for the right reasons. Unfortunately, after the arrest of the owner of Silk Road, we realised that things behind the scenes were not as smooth or peaceful as we thought. From there further stories started to unravel like the scam murder-for-hire site Besa Mafia run by Yura.
Okay so this is a few years later—after you published your book on Silk Road—you were researching the dark web and you found a murder-for-hire site? And it was run by a guy named Yura?
That’s right. Yura was the owner of the most profitable murder-for-hire dark web site in history, Besa Mafia. His operation took in hundreds of thousands (he claims over a million) of dollars. If you believed he was who he said he was—the owner of a site that arranged murders using a network of operatives all over the world—he would be pretty scary. As it was, he was simply a conman who scammed would-be murderers out of their bitcoin and never carried out any hits. He operated on the Nigerian scammer model—forever requiring more and more money for something or other until he had bled his victims dry. Hitman services are a staple on the dark web, so I was always writing about them. One day, thanks to a friendly hacker, a London cybersecurity expert named Chris Monteiro and I were provided access to the back end of Yura’s site Besa Mafia. We were able to see every single message that came through. Prior to that, we were pretty sure it was a scam, but not completely because a little earlier, Yura had sent Chris a video of a car being torched with the arsonist holding up a piece of paper with Chris's website's name on it. Once we were inside, we were sure it was a scam and published that information online.
What happened after you called bullshit on the site?
After I started writing about Besa Mafia’s operations, the owner started bombarding me with threats—everything from hacking my computer and placing child porn on it, to sending one of his operatives to beat me up and rape me. He was fond of reminding me that I didn’t know who or where he was, but he knew who I was and where I lived. When the threats didn't work (he didn't know I had access to his emails) he started trying to reason with me, saying that he was doing the world a favour by scamming would-be murderers out of their bitcoin.
He sounds delusional. Were you ever in danger?
It got nasty again for a while when he started spreading information all over the web that Chris Monteiro and I were the true owners of Besa Mafia. He also told this to the people who signed up to his site to become hitmen, who he also scammed (he would make subscribers do something like torching a car and then not pay them), so we had would-be hitmen thinking we were the ones who had scammed them out of their money. Chris even got arrested on the back of those rumours.
How, if at all, was this situation resolved?
Yura and I entered into a regular dialogue, eventually chatting regularly on Google Hangouts. It was a tumultuous relationship, but plenty of fodder for a book. At one point he offered me a job, rewriting his site with better spelling and grammar so he could be taken more seriously. He even offered to let me come in as a sort of business partner, stringing along some of the customers to get more money out of them.
Did you ever meet Yura in person?
When I was hired by CBS in the US as a consultant to their 48 Hours program, “Click for a Killer”, I tried to convince him to take part. He got so excited about advertising for his site that he sent the producer details of two people who had been put as targets on his website. Two people someone had paid to have killed. The producer passed the info on to the authorities, and shortly after two arrests were made. I kept on at Yura and he eventually agreed to appear on the show. He’s somewhere in eastern Europe, so CBS flew me to London and arranged an academy-award nominated makeup artist to be there to disguise him. He never showed. He bailed, worried it was a trap. He did send in a video of himself though, in a balaclava and sunglasses, still insisting his site was real and CBS used that. As far as I know, he's still out there.
What have you learned about the human condition in terms of what qualifies as "evil"? Is it quantifiable?
I don’t think the dark web is creating any new crimes; it’s just another place for the same old crimes to take place. None of the people I met were what I would characterise as evil, except for Lux, the owner of Hurt2theCore.
Who was Lux?
Hurt2theCore is by far the worst I’ve come across. It was created by a young man in Melbourne at his parents’ house. He was studying at uni at the time and running this massive child exploitation pornography website. I went to court for his sentencing hearings, where they described photos and videos line by line. The judge had to watch Daisy’s Destruction, a film considered one of the worst and most violent examples of child abuse that exists. It was enough to give you nightmares for the rest of your life. The dark web has allowed these people to find and interact with each other so it’s all normalised what they’re looking at and producing and sharing. It’s quite creepy.
So these child abuse sites are real and relatively common?
Oh, there are more than enough. The most shocking is absolutely the child exploitation communities. No money changes hands on these sites—it’s a sharing economy for child abuse. They’re meeting places for all these people around the world who have found each other and who are all into really extreme child pornography including torture porn. Those sites host horrendous things.
What is it like living in a world of drugs, violence, conspiracy theories, and hitmen?
Nothing has changed dramatically. The dark web is in itself a fascinating place to explore and I use what's there to write my books and as content for other projects like my Casefile episodes.
Speaking of which, are you working on any new projects?
I'm working up a couple of non-fiction book proposals and I’ve even started on a dark web-themed fiction series. I’m in negotiations with a few TV production companies to work on documentaries and TV series. I’ll keep producing Casefile episodes too as I really enjoy doing them and Casey is a great guy to work for.
Finally, what good has come from the dark web?
The dark web allows whistleblowers to release information safely and anonymously. It allows people in hostile regimes to communicate safely and privately. It allows normal people who don’t want to be tracked by governments or by commercial interests to take back their digital footprint and use the web with privacy. Silk Road provided bitcoin with the opportunity to prove how it could work as a digital currency, and that has opened up a world of possibilities.
Check out Eileen’s Vivid Sydney talk New Horizons: The Darkest Web on May 26. Eileen has also written two books, Silk Road, and her newly released book The Darkest Web: Drugs Death and Destroyed Lives, available for purchase here.