Last month, 29-year-old Cambridge graduate Matthew Falder was sentenced to 32 years in prison for a list of sadistic offences that included blackmail, voyeurism, making indecent images of children, and encouraging the rape of a child. Many of these crimes had occurred via the dark web, where Falder was part of a virtual community of vicious abusers. His crimes became a stark reminder that beneath the anonymity of the dark web, amid the drug buying and the privacy freedoms, lie unspeakable horrors.
It was into this murky zone – teeming with rumours of secret government files and gladiatorial fights to the death – that journalist and blogger Eileen Ormsby propelled herself. A disillusioned corporate lawyer turned writer from Australia, Eileen’s new book, The Darkest Web, is the story of her journey, from drug markets and murder-for-hire sites to the Internet’s seediest alcoves. But the most startling moments of the book happen when she comes face-to-face with some of its key players.
I spoke to Eileen about her trip into the dark web’s soul and what this secretive domain really says about us.
VICE: How important is secrecy to the dark web community?
Eileen: Anonymity is sacrosanct on the dark web. Doxxing is considered the most heinous of crimes. The dark web provides a place where members can give themselves a name and identity that becomes their own, confident they will not be identified in real life, nor will their meeting place be shut down. There is a strong community. These tools mean that like-minded people can get together for more nefarious purposes, safe in the knowledge that they can’t be tracked. That can be a good thing and it can also be used for bad.
Is the dark web community closed off from the real world?
Our lives are so online now, the online world is the real world. There’s no line between them. The thing that marks the dark web out is its cloak of secrecy, and what that makes people do. In some ways it can be good, it gives people a voice who wouldn’t normally have one, it is used by whistle-blowers or people in oppressive countries.
But it can also make people do things they would never do in their real lives or would never admit to. The computer nerd who has never hit someone in their life can suddenly be a kingpin. The people on the dark web are as not as physically scary and intimidating as the people in the underworld, but if someone can order a murder at the touch of a button, maybe you don’t have to be.
You investigated "Lux" aka Matthew Graham, the young man who ran the dark web’s worst paedophile and hurtcore sites from his bedroom in Melbourne. You were at his sentencing hearing in 2016, where the judge described him as “pure evil”. What did you make of him?
The main thing about him is that he was a pathetic, friendless, sad little boy. He was very socially inept, he had a lot of issues and this was his way of being important and being somebody. But he was a pathetic loser. It’s almost sad except that he was so heinous you can’t actually feel sorry for him. [There was] no evidence his parents had any idea. I saw his father at those court sessions, he was just a broken man, listening to what his son was doing under his very nose. It was quite devastating to watch.
What kind of people made up the "hurtcore" communities?
It is unfathomable what evil people are capable of. But what is really frightening is how otherwise normal they seem to be. You would think there would have to be something that gives them away, but they seem to be rational, intelligent, not necessarily lacking in social skills. It’s terrifying.
Is there a common thread linking people who are active on the dark web?
You have to have a certain amount of technical savvy to be on there. It does tend to be more white-collar people, overwhelmingly male, very much from Western, English speaking countries – mainly USA, Europe and the UK. The language used on most of the dark web is English, although now there are quite a lot of Russian speaking forums on there
You contacted some of the dark web’s fabled murder-for-hire sites as your investigation. Did you have to provide them with a target?
To test one of the sites out, I pretended I wanted to hire them to kill an ex-husband of mine. He was already dead so it was safe to send his picture and details. I just wanted to see how the process went. I wasn’t convinced it was genuine.
You sneaked into the back door of Besa Mafia, the biggest murder-for hire website on the dark web. How did that go?
Besa Mafia was a very slick site which many people on the dark web thought was genuine. Using some hacked files my UK friend Chris Monteiro found on the internet, we gained access to the site’s database and inbox. It got a little disconcerting when the site’s owner started threatening me with violence, he seemed to be getting a little unhinged.
The database showed a list of real people who were willing to pay to get people killed. What did you do?
Around two dozen people had paid Besa Mafia thousands of dollars in Bitcoin to have people killed. Mostly it was husband and wife situations or scorned lovers, with a mix of male and females, from all over the world. Chris and I contacted the police and sent them the link to the database.
The police were very slow to react. We kept getting police saying "who cares, it’s a scam". But the point was there were all these people out there paying very real money in very large sums to carry out violence and murders. Amazingly the thanks Chris got for helping the British police out was to have his door busted down by the National Crime Agency. He was in custody for 48 hours before the police realised what they had done.
In the book you go deep into the Silk Road saga. What did you make of Ross Ulbricht ordering people to be killed?
For a couple of years I drank the Kool Aid, I really believed in his vision and what he was doing with Silk Road. So after he was arrested when the police said he had ordered hits, even though we know the hits were not carried out, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was just part of the government’s narrative to turn people against him, because he had this cult-like following. To actually find out that it actually happened was devastating. You make excuses that he was painted into a corner but the fact is, for all his talk of being a peace-seeking libertarian and someone who was providing a violence-free environment to buy drugs, he was willing to use violence to protect his empire. I’m disappointed.
What advice would you give to people exploring the dark web for the first time?
Outside of the established markets, and even inside sometimes, nearly every site that wants your cryptocurrency will take it and give you nothing in return. Dark net market users have to be constantly on alert that they don't log in to one of the plethora of phishing sites, which will clean out their accounts of Bitcoin.
The number one thing is do your research. Read everything you can before you get on there. Have a look at the dark net markets on Reddit. Get an idea of what’s real and what’s not real and what sort of scams are out there. If you go into the dark web and click on the first Dream Market link you find, it’s going to be a phishing link. Don’t click on links you don’t know where they go because you might bump into all sorts of things you don’t want to see and can’t un-see.
What’s the likelihood of being caught buying drugs online?
If you are buying personal amounts the likelihood it is very, very low. Especially if you buy from someone in your own country. It is going to come in a plain business package that is indistinguishable from the billions of other business packages that are circulating the world that day. It’s going to be sealed in a moisture barrier bag so the dogs can’t smell it. You are more likely to be caught if it’s coming from a highly-flagged country like the Netherlands.
Is it true dark web drug markets have become more chaotic in the last few years?
I think the golden era of Silk Road might be over. The dark net markets are in disarray. The markets that came after Silk Road were much bigger, but they didn’t care what they sold. Half the owners just packed up and left as soon as they had made enough money and there’s been so many law enforcement shut downs.
You are getting much smaller, de-centralised markets now. No-one trusts anyone to hold all that bitcoin in escrow anymore. That whole system that worked perfectly with Silk Road is no longer working for people. They don’t have the integrity, nor the stability of Silk Road. Whatever else Ross Ulbricht did, he tried to run Silk Road as honestly as possible, he looked out for his customers and his vendors.
Of course, Silk Road’s other legacy is the rise of Bitcoin. It was worth less than a dollar when Silk Road started. Silk Road really showed the utility of a stable decentralised cryptocurrency. Bitcoin no longer relies on the dark net markets for its value, in fact it’s losing favour as the currency of choice for the dark web, but it would not have got where it is today without Silk Road.
Do you think the online drug market will shrink?
If people get ripped off often enough or they find it too difficult they are going to go back to their old ways of buying drugs. So online drug markets may well get less popular. I think there’s going to be a small core of sellers, particularly the ones selling softer drugs such as cannabis, MDMA and LSD, who will continue to do really well.
Supporters of the dark web say it’s a vital space for online freedom and privacy. Is that just an excuse?
I don’t think we’re being paranoid enough to be honest. Every time you click on something that algorithm is going somewhere, it’s telling them a little bit more about you, and they are all selling it to each other. I think we’ve given up so much and we’ve given it up without even realising it and now we can’t put that genie back in the bottle. Kids now have grown up not knowing any privacy at all, they put everything online, that’s just normal for them. We don’t know how much we’re being aggregated behind the scenes or how that information will be used in the future.
How do you see the dark web’s future?
I do think we have moved into a post-privacy world almost without noticing it. Many people will be content to give up their privacy for the sake of easy living. But I think we will see a much stronger movement seeking to regain control of their information because some people just don’t want to give up all their information to marketers. Privacy tools such as those provided by the dark web will be more integrated into tech, so that we can decide just how much we are willing to give up.
What’s the best site on the dark web?
I can’t tell you the name, but I like to call a little corner of rainbows and happiness in the dark web, it’s a place where psychonauts get together, it is for people into their psychedelics. It’s full of nice people talking about nice things.
The Darkest Web by Eileen Ormsby is published on March 14 by Allen & Unwin