In The Darkest Web, Australian lawyer and journalist Eileen Ormsby breaks down “the internet’s evil twin” into three levels of badness: dark, darker, and darkest.
I have spent the past five years exploring every corner of the dark web, one of the few who is open about who I am and what I do there. I have shopped on darknet markets, contributed to forums, waited in red rooms and hacked hitmen-for-hire sites.
“Dark” mainly focuses on the drug market, including the wildly successful site Silk Road, subject of an international investigation before its closure and which is quite the twisty-turny tale. “Darker” are the hitmen-for-hire sites, which, although proven fakes, leave something terrible to contemplate about what people wish they could buy, and in some cases, are willing to do themselves. “Darkest” is, as you might imagine, the absolute worst there is.
She highlights that the scariest thing is the meeting of the “depraved minds” that the dark web has enabled. The technology, she says, is easy to use just with basic computer skills, and the anonymity enticing. It’s made it easier for those with similar deviances to find each other.
But there’s good news and bad news. The good: it’s not always as bad as it seems — Ormsby identifies most of the worst rumors as “exaggerations, lies, or hoaxes.” The notorious hitmen-for-hire have proven to be scams, with fake companies offering their services and bilking users out of money with, obviously, no recourse for complaints. Morally gray, to be certain, but Ormsby didn’t uncover evidence of any paid hit actually happening. It even sounds pretty ridiculous: she describes the sites offering hits as “overwhelmingly amateurish, poorly worded fakes, designed to separate the gullible from their bitcoin.”
Same for the “red rooms,” where users pay to access a channel of live torture or murder, sometimes of supposed terrorists and often, because the dark web reflects the garbage world we live in, of women. These appear to be faked until the feed goes out or some similar glitch occurs and again, no evidence they’re real.
“Darker,” primarily covering hitmen-for-hire site Besa Mafia, was the standout portion of the book. Besa Mafia became linked with the murder of Amy Allwine in Illinois in 2016. The FBI found Amy’s name as an ordered hit within data from a hack. Amy was alive, and the FBI notified her about the threat. Shortly after, she was murdered. But there was still no evidence that Besa Mafia had done it — their communications with the “customer” always indicated being unable to carry out the hit for one reason or another. So what happened? (If you don’t know this story, don’t google it and listen to the Casefile podcast’s episode #86, which was written by Ormsby about the Allwine case.)
Ormsby was in deep on the Besa Mafia story, and had been communicating with Yura, the still-unidentified administrator of the site. At first he threatened her, before eventually asking her to work for him, writing site content and editing his writing because he worried his mistakes in English were turning off potential customers. Ormsby’s proximity to the Besa Mafia investigation as it unfolded, made stranger by the actual murder of someone on whom there’d been a hit, makes this an incredible work of reportage. I get the impression it’s also where she felt most in her element and so her storytelling is best here too.
Now the bad news: the drug market on the dark web is a flourishing one, even after the shutdown of Silk Road, the drug market Amazon. Not only drugs, but purchasable stolen financial information and hacking services are also real, but still only entry level dark. Darkest is child pornography and abuse, and unfortunately, it’s very real. And it’s very hard to read about.
Ormsby is not sensationalist or lurid, and is careful in writing about this ugly subject. As so much of this corner of the dark web is still shadowy, after explaining the basics of it she reports on the investigations that have dragged some of these ghouls into the light. The biggest and most disturbing is “Lux,” who ran a site dealing in “hurtcore,” sexual torture porn. Of children. It’s horrifying.
Lux was Matthew Graham, a pedophile who lived with his parents in Melbourne. He facilitated the abuse and trade of materials depicting it with a massive network of people around the world, many of whom — and this is where it gets important and necessary to know — had access to children. One, for example, “worked in a home for mentally impaired children in the UK.”
I know this is a hard subject to learn more about, but I don’t think there’s any benefit in pretending it doesn’t happen or that it’s only easily identifiable barely human creatures in basements who are doing it. It’s not. It’s normal-seeming people in jobs, positions, or relationships with access to children and that’s where awareness is crucial.
It’s not an easy read, but the topic is something I’m glad to understand more about. Ormsby is a valuable guide to the internet’s underworld — intelligent, curious, able to parse her experiences and complicated timelines, narratives, and figures into highly readable stories, and she’s sensitive even while being brave enough to immerse herself in this hideousness for the benefit of telling the wider world about it. There’s so much value in that.
The Darkest Web:
Drugs, Death, and Destroyed Lives – The Inside Story of the Internet’s Evil Twin
by Eileen Ormsby
published March 2018 by Allen & Unwin