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Jamie Bartlett: What Goes On In The Secrecy Of The Dark Web?

Dec 15, 2017
Originally published on February 1, 2018 10:18 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Going Undercover

About Jamie Bartlett's TED Talk

When journalist Jamie Bartlett dove into the secret, hidden part of the Internet known as the Dark Web, he was surprised by what he found lurking there.

About Theo E.J. Wilson

Jamie Bartlett is the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, a U.K. think tank. He has conducted research on subjects ranging from crypto-currencies, to surveillance methods, to ISIS's use of social media. He is also a regular columnist for The Telegraph and The Guardian.

Jamie Bartlett is the author of The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, a book on legal and illegal internet subcultures. His newest book is Radicals.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Going Undercover.

Jamie, are you really who you say you are?

JAMIE BARTLETT: I believe I am.

RAZ: OK, good. All right, you're not, like, a fake person who's just pretending to be Jamie Bartlett?

BARTLETT: Well, I - I mean, I would never tell you, would I?

RAZ: So as far as we know, this is Jamie Bartlett. He's a journalist and an author. And Jamie focuses on this hidden part of the Internet. It's called the darknet, where, among other things, you can buy and sell illegal stuff.

BARTLETT: A lot of drugs, stolen data, counterfeit money, commercially available hacking services and the like, definitely.

RAZ: And a couple years ago, Jamie spent a lot of time poking around the darknet while researching for his books as kind of an anonymous undercover observer.

BARTLETT: Yeah, I mean, I spent a year, basically, immersed in a lot of Internet subcultures - so all the sort of darkest sides of Internet behavior that get people very worried. I decided to sort of try to understand them a little better.

RAZ: Jamie describes what he found there from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BARTLETT: If you want to buy high-quality, low-priced cocaine, there really is only one place to go, and that is the darknet anonymous markets. You can't get to these sites with a normal browser - Chrome or Firefox - because they're on this hidden part of the Internet known as Tor hidden services, where URLs are a string of meaningless numbers and letters that end in .onion and which you access with a special browser called the Tor Browser.

Now, the Tor Browser was originally a U.S. Naval intelligence project. It then became opensource. And it allows anybody to browse the net without giving away their location. And it does this by encrypting your IP address and then rooting it via several other computers around the world that use the same software.

To the user, it really feels very much like the rest of the Internet because you don't actually do anything all that different. I mean, you download a browser, and you use the browser, and you follow links. And so it's become a bit of a Wild West of the Internet, where people with something to hide or who have reason to keep themselves hidden, whether it's for good reason or bad, find a natural home. And because of this fiendishly clever encryption system, the 20 or 30 - we don't know exactly - thousand sites that operate there are incredibly difficult to shut down.

It is a censorship-free world visited by anonymous users. Little wonder, then, that it's a natural place to go for anybody with something to hide. And that's something, of course, need not be illegal. On the darknet, you will find whistleblower sites. You will find political activism blogs. You will find libraries of pirated books. But you'll also find the drugs markets, illegal pornography, commercial hacking services and much more besides.

RAZ: It sounds like the bar on Tatooine. Like, it sounds like you'd go outside, and you'd find, you know, Han Solo. And he's like a - he's a mercenary.

BARTLETT: I think he was a trafficker. I think he was illegally trafficking goods, wasn't he?

RAZ: Right, yeah.

BARTLETT: You know what? That's so weird you said that because I was literally thinking of that bar on Tatooine when I was trying to describe it. And I thought that's far too niche a reference. No one will know what I'm talking about.

RAZ: And there you go.

BARTLETT: But that is a little bit of what it's like - a den of villainy where you've got heroes and villains right next to each other.

RAZ: All right, so let me ask you a kind of a dumb question. So this is dark - this darknet. And people go on it, and they can get pretty much anything they want - drugs, weapons, hackers. I don't know, maybe, murders-for-hire, whatever. Like, but say you do order something - like, physically order something that's illegal that you have to actually take possession of. How does that work? How do you get a bag of drugs sent to you?

BARTLETT: Well, I mean, in my book, I got a bag of drugs sent me.

RAZ: Really?

BARTLETT: It's really not that difficult. I mean, people put their address in, and they usually will put a drop address. So it's an address to which you have access, but it's not your home address. So you put a fake name on there and you - but you know to look out for a package. That's what most people tend to do. But you got to remember that a lot of the trade on there is not necessarily physical goods.

I mean, a lot of stolen data, stolen credit cards, illegal pornography, which is also available there - this can be sent as digital files to email addresses. So you don't even need to have anything physical to access. But - and, of course, a lot of the drugs are sent through the post. But the reality is that there are millions upon millions of letters that are sent around the world every single day. And it's just impossible for the authorities to actually monitor all of them. So most of it gets through.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BARTLETT: The first thing you will notice on signing up to one of these sites is how familiar it looks. Every single product - thousands of products - has a glossy high-res image, a detailed product description, a price. There's a proceed-to-checkout icon. There is even, most beautifully of all, report-this-item button.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTLETT: Incredible. Interested in what drugs are trending right now on the darknet markets? Check Grams, the search engine. You can even buy some advertising space. Are you an ethical consumer worried about what the drugs industry is doing? Yeah, one vendor will offer you fair trade organic cocaine.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTLETT: That's not being sourced from Colombian drug lords, but Guatemalan farmers. They even promised to reinvest 20 percent of any profits into local education programs.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTLETT: And the vendors are attentive. They're polite. They're consumer-centric, offering you all manner of special deals - one-offs, buy-one-get-one frees, free delivery - to keep you happy. I spoke to Drugs Heaven (ph). Drugs Heaven was offering excellent and consistent marijuana at a reasonable price.

Dear Drugs Heaven - I wrote via the internal emailing system that's also encrypted, of course - I'm new here. Do you mind if I buy just one gram of marijuana? Couple of hours later, I get a reply. They always reply. Hi, there. Thanks for your email. Starting small is a wise thing to do. I would, too, if I were you. So no problem if you'd like to start with just one gram. I do hope we can do business together. Best wishes, Drugs Heaven.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: So - OK, so you're doing research. And did you, like, present yourself as Jamie Bartlett? Like, I'm a researcher, and I'm doing this. Like, I'd like to buy some pot. Or did you have to adopt, like, an alter ego?

BARTLETT: It depended on what I was doing. I mean, generally speaking, I think it's much better for a writer or a researcher - it's more ethically sound - to let people know who you are and what you're doing, and especially, in these sort of very sensitive online communities. I mean, I spent a lot of time in forums that were dedicated to people talking about suicide and who sort of fantasized about committing suicide. And I felt it would be a little bit misleading and unfair if I was almost spying on them in these - what a quite sensitive online space is. So generally speaking, I'd be open. But there are times, of course, where you make that judgment that to really get to the story, you do need to go undercover.

RAZ: Did you have, like, a name that you used?

BARTLETT: While I was writing this book, I can't tell you how many email accounts I set up, how many different, you know, different usernames, different - I mean, all sorts - I always tried to make them as bland as possible because, you know, I always - I never really wanted to stand out. I mean, of course, sometimes you'd want to make a slightly more believable name. So if you are going into a neo-Nazi forum, you'd want to call yourself something with the word werwolf or something like Patriot77. Yeah and then, obviously, if you go to a radical left-wing forum, you don't want to use patriot77. So there - you know, there you're Trotsky85.

RAZ: Yeah.

BARTLETT: And so you are - you do have to quickly learn how to fit into these places. You're always actually going to be half on guard. You don't go native because you can get sucked into online communities very, very quickly and easily. And that's one of the things that I learned because you begin to understand why people are there and what they're doing there. And the danger is you actually - you kind of lose your own moral compass. And you stop, I guess, seeing the bigger problems that maybe some of these behaviors are creating.

RAZ: You know, I was thinking about your talk and your research. And it really did make me think that there are lots of things we just - we can't find out about unless we kind of do the cloak and dagger thing.

BARTLETT: Yeah.

RAZ: But at the same time, when you were doing all this undercover stuff on the darknet, I mean, were you ever worried that you might actually get into legal trouble?

BARTLETT: Yeah. And it's very, very difficult because I think to surface the problems, you do have to have independent journalists trying to figure it out.

RAZ: Yeah.

BARTLETT: I thought that it was, in the end, a legal risk that I was willing to take to buy a small amount of marijuana. But I'm also asked all the time - well, can you buy a gun? Could you buy some stolen data? Could you buy some fake passports? But I know that if I did that, there would be no defense for me. And I wouldn't be able to say, oh, I was only doing it for research. And it's rather frustrating because it means there's a lot of dark places on the Internet that I think we could learn a lot more about and understand better if there were a way to allow researchers to get in there and understand it properly without getting themselves in trouble legally. And I don't quite know how, but I think it would be a great benefit if we could.

RAZ: Jamie Bartlett is the author of "The Dark Net" and "Radicals: The Outsiders Changing The World" (ph). You can see his entire talk at ted.com.

So the drugs arrived to your, like, Dropbox?

BARTLETT: Actually, I got them sent to my home address.

RAZ: And were they high-quality?

BARTLETT: Oh, I didn't actually take them.

RAZ: Oh, you didn't? OK...

BARTLETT: I just smelled them.

RAZ: I just thought you...

BARTLETT: Oh, I just smelled them.

RAZ: Research, just research, you know? Just...

BARTLETT: Yeah, I just didn't think that was going to - I mean, I just smelled them and then got rid of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.