Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
By Mike Gould
...the street finds its own uses for things
…William Gibson, Burning Chrome, 1982
The above quote was first published in Omni magazine. This story also contained the first reference to the then-nascent Internet as “cyberspace”, a term Gibson coined. Gibson went on to write a bunch of other books about how technology affects society, in a style now known as cyberpunk.
Cyberpunk depicts the near future, usually in a noir fashion: think Blade Runner, with its always-raining bleak future cityscape. But this film didn’t talk about the impact of the Internet on Sub-Urban life today, and that is the theme of today’s column.
Dark Waters Run Deep
The Deep Web refers to parts of the World Wide Web which are hidden from the indexing of the major search engines. Most people put their sites up in order to garner as much attention as possible, and go to great lengths to make their presence as findable as possible, via Search Engine Optimization.
The deep webbers go to the opposite extreme, making their sites as difficult to access as possible. Think of the “shallow web” as the shopping malls of the world; the deep web is where the speakeasies live. If you are selling opium on the web (and, yes, this is a thing), you don’t want your site popping up when someone asks Siri, “Where can I mail-order my fix today?” Such openness brings the attention of the law. As an opium dealer, you want your customer to be in the know, someone who knows the virtual path to go down the three flights of stairs, knock four times on an unmarked door and say “swordfish” to the doorman when the little slot opens up at eye level.
There Are Criminals On The Internet
That’s a shocker. Spam, scams, phishing, viruses, and such are what most people see as mostly email malfeasance. But this is just the tip of the dark iceberg, as the above is Criminals > You. The real dark side is the Criminals > Criminals interaction, which takes place in the seamy underbelly of the Internet, away from the attention of civilians, but very much on the radar of law enforcement.
Terrorists, criminals, and just plain thugs with a knowledge of where to go and who to talk to are using the same Internet we all use, only for nefarious purposes. Here we visit one of the more well-known wretched hives of scum and villainy (like Star Wars’ Mos Eisley, only on this planet).
But First, how do you get there and how do you pay?
TOR is short for The Onion Router, and is a means of preserving anonymity while doing Internet activities. TOR is not evil per se, and in some quarters it is seen as the best way to hide your sensitive communications from government snooping. The NSA has declared that TOR is "the King of high secure, low latency Internet anonymity". It works by encoding your communications in several layers of encryption, and then sending it to its destination via several round-about trips through various world-wide relays. All this routing hides the sender of the message and his/her Internet address from prying eyes.
In other words, suppose Big Brother is “watching” (monitoring via the interception of emails) a given site, looking for someone/-thing it doesn’t like. When an email comes in, BB is unable to trace it back to the sender, or decrypt it.
This allows dissidents in foreign countries to communicate in spite of their despotic governments’ desire to suppress them. And it gives companies doing international business a means to send sensitive information to agents in iffier parts of the world. But what if the dissidents are deemed terrorists by the West, and the governments in question are US allies?
Therein lies the rub: a highway serves bandits and travelers alike, and trying to control the one affects the other.
Again, nothing inherently bad here. Bitcoin is a software-based online money system that uses complex mojo to track payments and purchases. It is quickly becoming an international phenomenon, accepted in more and more countries and companies every year. This is a complex subject, beyond the purview of this article (maybe next month, if there is interest…); suffice it to say there is a certain amount of anonymity involved, and a lack of bank records of transactions. However, Wikipedia observes that “It has been suggested that Bitcoin payments should not be considered more anonymous than credit card payments”.
At any rate, Bitcoin is the preferred means of exchange for many nefarious organizations, such as:
OK, you’ve set up your TOR account, downloaded the open-source code to run it, and bought your stash of Bitcoin; where do you go to do your dealing? Head out to the Silk Road. These guys started up in 2011, and were busted in October 2013, but replacements started popping up a scant month later. Specialties include drug deals, hacking, and murder-for-hire. Think Craigslist for the unsavory. The alleged criminal mastermind behind this was a guy named Ross Ulbricht, AKA the Dread Pirate Roberts. Granted that the Road also offered commerce in more conventional items, antiques, arms, etc., but its notoriety is derived from the drug dealing that goes on there. It has been estimated that in excess of $15 million changes hands per year on the Silk Road.
Back To Books
I’m a big fan of the writer Thomas Pynchon, and in 2013 he published a great book called Bleeding Edge. Pynchon is truly an American treasure; his work is full of great writing – intricate plots, historical background, and current cultural memes galore. This book is his first foray into sorta cyberpunk, and is one of his strongest works yet. Recommended.
Mike Gould stays in the light web (being a laserist and all), was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 3.0 Laser Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.