The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

There are 2 days, 1 hour, 17 min. left. JOIN or LEAVE, the message reads. Behind the text, two welding tanks and what looks like an operating table sit in a small brick room, and a red light illuminates the page. I've found one of the dark web’s most notorious sites; what claims to be a pay-to-watch torture, and ultimately murder, website known as a “red room.”

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I had imagined the dark web as an enigma; an impenetrable, encoded fortress that required a tech-savvy brain to access. A place where drugs are sold, hitmen are hired, and wicked crimes are committed. The latter half of my imaginings were accurate: the dark web does host a bevy of criminal activity. But according to Sgt. Mike Swindells of the Calgary police cyber forensics unit, accessing the dark web is easy. Google anything, and there will be a YouTube video telling you how to do it.

Accessing the dark web requires a different browser than your typical Firefox or Google Chrome. Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, anonymizes your search and is used to access the dark web.

"When you use Tor, your data is encrypted and sent through different nodes," says Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Calgary police cyber forensics unit. "Those nodes are based worldwide, so when we try to track where the node is at a given IP address, it can't be located to a fixed area."

 MG 6006Calgary Police headquarters in N.E. Calgary. Sgt. Mike Swindells and Sgt. Ray Kelly work in the cyber forensic unit that has does investigations on the dark web. Photo by Kate Mackenzie

Kelly adds that because users know Tor can hide who and where they are, it's a popular place for the sale of illegal goods.

"Drugs, guns, prostitution; it's out there on the dark web. There are drug dealers in Calgary that use the dark web."-Sgt. Mike Swindells

In addition to the anonymity Tor provides, Swindells says it's common for users also to use a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, for an extra layer of security.

"So if we get an IP address we're able to trace, but they're using a VPN, they physically could be in Calgary,” he says. “But the VPN could make it look like they're anywhere in the world."

Knowing I'm not going to purchase anything, I opt out on subscribing to a VPN. With my Tor browser downloaded and security slider set to high, I'm set to explore the dark web. Excited and nervous, I stare blankly at the DuckDuckGo search engine Tor uses. Now what? Do I type something illegal into the search bar? Naively, I type in the word drugs, hit enter, and find the same generic websites you would with Google.

My difficulty stemmed from thinking Tor was synonymous with the dark web. It's not. Tor allows you to access dark websites that end with the URL .onion. But Tor can also be used as a standard browser to go on Facebook, Netflix or other surface websites.  The surface web, which is the part of the internet most of us use, is indexed. When a keyword or phrase is used, the search engine looks through all the indexed sites and returns with relevant results. The surface web makes up 10 per cent of the entire internet. The remainder, the deep web, is not accessible via search engines.

"Because they're not indexed, it makes it harder to search the dark web. And a lot of the sites people go to are being referred from somewhere else," says Kelly. "It's not through a search engine."

The Hidden Wiki, which is a dark web website directory, proved extremely resourceful — conveniently divided into financial services, commercial services, Darknet Market/Drugs, Hacking, Whistleblowing and more. The Hidden Wiki will meet all your dark web curiosity needs.  

The financial services section lists almost two dozen sites. A site called Financial Oasis describes itself as "a slew of products from a darker side of finance.” Captivated by the pithy tagline, I click it. The oasis theme is evident with a palm-tree background and two women, one nude, the other wearing a sarong, gazing into what looks like a lake. The site describes itself as several parties that have combined their illicit services to make one "clean and tidy site." Here, you can buy government notes marked for recycle, prepaid debit cards, compromised PayPal accounts and Amazon gift card codes.

Links for fake passports, driver’s licences, degrees and brand-new identities are in the commercial services section.

"There is a lot of stolen personal information on the dark web," says Kathy Macdonald, an online investigator based in Calgary. "If there's a data breach, then passwords, emails, all that kind of stuff, you can buy, sell and trade on the dark web."

Screen Shot 2019 08 22 at 115815A screen shot of a dark website that sells UK passports. Photo by Kate Mackenzie

Screen Shot 2019 08 22 at 115521A screen shot of a dark website that sells drugs. Photo by Kate Mackenzie

A website called the Counterfeiting Center claims to have original, fully government registered passports for sale. A clean-cut young man smiles on an Alabama driver’s licence. Supposedly a sample of their counterfeit work, I can't help but wonder if the clean-cut face knows his photo is on a site of stolen identities?

Guns, stolen Apple products, and hitmen services are also in the commercial services section. BMG, or Black Market Guns, assures their buyers all of their equipment is brand new and checked for defects. BMG wants you to feel safe when you purchase your AK-47 — how thoughtful.

The hitmen service, supposedly comprised of a highly-trained team of ex-military personnel, says it will get the job done within one week. For an extra fee, they can make the hit look like a suicide, accident or whatever you like. Video or photographic proof will be provided once the job is complete. 

Although many of the websites have kitschy designs reminiscent of websites from the ‘90s, the level of obscurity the sites maintain is far more sophisticated.

"The web site address is usually extremely deluded, so you'll never remember what it was," says Kelly. "You'll see it for so long, and then the site will go dark on you."

According to Macdonald, there's lots of social engineering, a form of scamming, that happens on the dark web.

"You have to be really careful when you go on the dark web because there's lots of malware," says Macdonald. "You have to be careful what you're clicking, and you have to know where you're going."

Purchases on the dark web typically use the digital currency Bitcoin. Unsurprisingly, there are risks involved in buying a product from the dark web. According to Kelly, the usual security measures when you purchase something on the surface web, like SSL encryption and two-factor authentication, aren't present during dark web transactions.

"People who operate on Tor are very hard to track down. So if you make a purchase and the item doesn't arrive, you don't really have a resource to find out where this person is. It's hard for us to track down that person and prosecute them for fraud."-Sgt. Ray Kelly

"Not everything on the dark web is illegal," says Macdonald. "People like to look at things like 8chan and 4chan, or just go on there to read stuff."

Nor is everything on the dark web actually dark. You can find a site dedicated to facts about cats, book clubs, chess clubs and more. Perhaps the most positive aspect of the dark web is its platform for whistleblowers. The Associated Press, The Guardian, Forbes and several other news organizations have a submission system on Tor known as SecureDrop. Here, news organizations can securely accept documents from anonymous sources. The dark web also provides a safe and private way for people living under hostile regimes to communicate. 

Finding a red room happened the third time I ventured into the dark web. There's a strange addiction to looking at websites selling illegal goods; a mixture of excitement and fear. An opportunity to distantly observe a world I wanted no part of but was still fascinated by. I was also slightly paranoid from a Reddit story, where a dark-web explorer claimed they got a mysterious phone call with only heavy breathing on the other end. Because of this, I avoided clicking on much once I was on the homepage of any websites. Something to note is the Tor network is extremely slow. A fair amount of the sites I would abandon after 10 minutes of waiting for them to load. So when the illuminated red page with the countdown opened almost immediately, I felt no excitement, only fear.

Screen Shot 2019 08 22 at 140917A screen shot of the dark website known as a red room. Photo by Kate Mackenzie.

I knew what a red room was because I had just been on a surface website discussing some of the most disturbing content on the dark web.

Eileen Ormsby, a journalist who has written books on the dark web, explains in an article on her website that in a red room, the voyeur who has paid the most is awarded the position of the director. The rest are passive spectators. The director gets to decide what will happen to the victim.

If I had been on my own, I would have exited the countdown page. But I wasn't, so instead of staring blankly at the JOIN or LEAVE, the join was clicked. The brick room background remained, but the message changed. Spectator or Commander were the new options. The cost of being a spectator was 0.1 bitcoin; this works out to approximately $1,500 CAD. The price of being the commander was one bitcoin, about $15,000 CAD. Not wanting to click anything more, we exited the page.

There's a debate surrounding the legitimacy of red rooms. Are they real or urban legend? Acting or actual murder?

Ormsby says there is no evidence that red rooms exist, and those who pay money to participate get their money taken and don’t get to see anything. Additionally, she writes that sites offering hitmen for hire are like the “Nigerian scammers of the dark web.” Unfortunately, child pornography and torture videos don’t fit into the same fictional category. 

Kelly says police have done investigations on the dark web and many sites are real. 

"That said, there are obviously sites that are used as a PR tool to draw people in and maybe offer them something else,” he adds. 

“But unfortunately, the dark web does attract the darkest of people."