Drugs, Child Pornography and Hit Men: 10 Minutes in the ‘Deep Web’

The Deep Web is similar to an iceberg in that it's not visible from the surface.

Zina Deretsky / National Science Foundation

The Deep Web is similar to an iceberg in that it's not visible from the surface.

At 14 I stood chest-deep in a cold swimming pool with a scuba tank strapped to my back. The mask covering most of my face, I plunged my head below the surface in an effort to learn what it feels like to be able to breathe under water, step one in training for scuba diving certification. I looked around the pool, seeing only the legs of the instructor before I lunged upward for air. As I wiped the chlorine from my eyes the instructor asked, "what happened? Why didn't you just breathe?"

I had grown up around water, learning to ski not long after learning to walk, but breathing under water just felt strange, unnatural.

Yesterday, some 15 years later, I had a similar experience. A popular social networking site was abuzz about the "deep web," this seemingly mythical internet underworld supposedly filled with drug lords, pedophiles, hackers and hit men. I spent much of my evening reading blogs and forums that explained that the websites that are searchable by search engines such as Google make up just 1% of the content on the Internet. But just out of plain sight, accessible only through certain browsers, is an internet wasteland, an underbelly to the web where old websites go to die. Because this part of the web is difficult to access, it has become a hub of vile and illegal activity, the Internet's subconscious.

Part of me wanted to believe that it was hyperbole. Surely there weren't actually child porn ads and forums for posting murder requests out in the open. But I, like most of society, was so very naive.

I work in technology, so I had to find out if this place was real. After all, it was a digital adventure, and hopefully it would show that the web is a wonderful place. I downloaded software that makes my on-line activity nearly impossible to track, a necessary step for accessing these sites. I configured my computer according to the strict instructions I had found in these forums so that I would be protected against hacking attempts. And with all of this software strapped to my proverbial back, I plunged into the deep web.

There is no way to find sites in the deep web, so everything is shared organically through forums. I accessed one such directory that was mentioned in one of the articles I had read. As I clicked just a couple links to see what this world contained, I had the same feeling I experienced underwater as a 14-year-old. I had been there too long, I couldn't breathe, and it just didn't feel right. With enough knowledge to prove that this world does indeed exist I closed my computer so I could compose myself.

My hands shook as I realized just how disgusting this world really is. Like most middle class Americans my world is sheltered, walled off by a genuine desire to believe that there is order, that people, for the most part, are good. But what I learned is that, given the opportunity to remain completely anonymous, people will participate in horrific things.

I believe in liberty as much as the next guy, but something has to be done. What are the governments of the world doing to regulate this massive underground market? Children are being abused because the images of that abuse are currency in the deep web, being traded for cash, drugs and services while the children suffer alone. Lives are being ruined, and no one is talking about it.

I urge you to stay away. I have purposely avoided using the names of programs or websites so as not to tempt you to go looking. Not only is most of what you will find illegal, it will leave you shaken.

Write to your Congress-person or a human rights organization and ask what is being done to combat this epidemic. As long as society pretends it doesn't exist, the more lives will be ruined.

For more coverage on this story, check out our recent article.

26 thoughts on “Drugs, Child Pornography and Hit Men: 10 Minutes in the ‘Deep Web’

  1. As with all things human, there are good and bad, light and dark. The deep web (Darknet, Ciphernet, etc.) are by there very nature ‘dark’. Anonymity is essential to the internet, but it attracts obviously large amounts of criminal elements. Most of the data ‘in’ the ‘deep web’ is meaningless, but can be used as ‘tunneling’ for the criminals. The drug-trade, murder for hire, and child-pornography aspects of the deep web are in fact well documented and even a cursory ‘dive’ in the undernet will prove this to anyone sick and twisted enough to look. As to Chris D’s complaints, he is obviously living in denial. Humans are capable of incredible feats and dreadful darkness… The Deep Web has more darkness than most care to admit humans are capable of.

  2. So if “The Deep Web” is defined as “sites that are not indexed by Google” and there exists “a ton of normal content” on “the deep web”. Than what you are saying is that there is a bunch of stuff on the internet not indexed by google? OK, this I know to be true. For instance, I like model trains and I know there are lots of hobbiest sites that don’t show up in google searches. Is that what you mean by “normal content”? If so, why didn’t he write that story instead of this ZOMG Hitmen! can of crap? and should we really write our congressmen about unindexed HO scale sites before “more lives are ruined”?
    Mr Abgef,much as I’d like to run with your charming impression of the Dennis Hopper character from Apocalypse Now, I must decline, man, and repeat that the provided examples are ridiculous. Important safety tip – if you order Heroin by mail, no one is going to mail you any heroin – they are going to keep your money and laugh at you.

    • Chris,

      You are only partially right in how you are defining the deep web. It is not just sites that aren’t indexed by Google. The deep web is made of websites and other content that are unindexable at all. There are hosts that operate with within the deep web (using www extensions that aren’t used on any other type of site – it is .onion), that provide space for people who would like to operate a site that is hidden from most people.

      The drug trade in the deep web, is real and well-documented. As is the child pornography trade. I understand your disbelief, as I was there too. But do you research. Reputable sources (like JJIE, NYT, WaPo, etc.) are writing about it often.

      • If sites “like” the new York times are writeing about this, provide a link, otherwise I call shananagins, and shame on you for it.

        • Chris, I’m not going to waste my time arguing with you, its clear that’s what you like to do.

          He is right. You cannot even access the hiddenwiki page with all of the links, but if you care to download the tor browser package and see for yourself, then here:


          Until then quit posting BS. He is right, you are wrong. Period.

        • You can’t receive a link unless you have installed tor as your browser, have correct settings and/ or have a vpn. You need anonymity and certain proxy settings to access some, and others you need quantum mechanics of hacking. Do not argue simply google this for your self.

          Your being very ignorant, and its frankly just silly.

  3. I can’t believe that, a year later, people are still taking this alarmist pile of crap seriously. Google indexes hundreds of millions of websites. Do you really believe that there are many BILLIONS of sites devoted to underage hitmen and mail order drugs? Seriously? Has there been a huge wave of contract killings and I missed the news?
    And your screenshots are more risiable then chilling, clearly taken from the one or two laughably unsinister sites you were able to find. Yet here you are, like Joe McCarthy waveing his list of “400” state dept officials, calling for government intervention to keep bored teenagers from posting crap on the internet.

    Why don’t you take a deep breath and look into the real internet menace, the death of responsible, well researched and credibly sourced journalism?

    • Don’t be ignorant, Chris. There is more to the deep web than just illicit material. It contains A TON of normal content as well.

    • are you stupid? you should try to access the deep web yourself…I’ve been there man, the report is f*cking accurate

      • Tor and .onion? This is what you’re worried about? These are just ways to communicate and use the web privately, which is a life or death issue in some parts of the world, where dissent is punished by the sort of government you guys would apparently like to see here in the US. As for the big scary “black market of the internet”? Produce something specific we can talk about if you can, otherwise you’re just blowing hot air. Again, the examples provided are laughable and the standard of journalism here is dreadful.

        So put up or shut up, provide some links, or screenshots, or supporting quotes if you want to be taken seriously, that should be easy enough from your perch there in the center of the universe.

  4. You do realize this site will be destroyed if more of these articles are posted right? Anon is an unforgiving, cruel beast.

  5. You really need to go MUCH further to find the stuff that will leave you shaking. The first time i went into it, I came off and my entire body was shaking. I support Anonymous on this issue, the government has no real control over the Internet, then like to think they do, and they are naive.

    In a weird way, it sort of represents how eff’d up the human race is. With a lot of Anonymity, we do unspeakable things.

  6. I hate to burst your bubble but there is absolutely no way the government can regulate the deepweb beyond shutting down the internet completely. The government can shut down a .onion just like they can .com, but the fix is just as easy as getting a new .onion domain name and re-uploading the site.

    You forget that tools like Tor and .onions are designed to be used for revolutionaries against dictatorships and oppressive regimes.

    My advice to you, if you really want to do something, is to donate money or support to vigilante hacker groups like Anonymous who have a history of hacking pedophile websites and leaking user identities to the FBI

    • @Danny I’m not sure that there is no way. I think the ideas you speak of, hacking pedo sites, is something the government should be doing, and that is a form of regulation. A lot of 1st Amendment people will disagree with that, but I think something has to be done. Further, Freedom Hosting and others that make .onion sites possible should be held accountable to the extent that their knowledge of these sites allows. I realize it is difficult to prove their knowledge. And I’m sure this exists, but embed agents in these communities. Eventually there will be arrests and that threat will at least somewhat deter others from participating.

      • If anything Noah, what you need to realize is that the internet can and will regulate itself. I myself visited the deepweb for the first time last night, and i assure you i was every bit as shocked as you were. However the wrong reaction is to call lawmakers and get them enact laws to correct this. Not only are lawmakers ill equiped for this, odds are that in the name of protecting children, theyll write a broad bill that destroys the 1st amendment rights of others. Like you i realize that CP consumers are disgusting animals, but i think this is something that should be left up to the internet.

        No amount of government intervention is going to end CP, its a sad truth really.

  7. OMG! 14 year olds posting crap on teh interwebs! Is end of the world! No way to tell if this stuff is real, I mean, gosh, maybe there really are hitmen out there killing politicians and stuff for $500,000. How could anyone know for sure? It’s just impossible to tell! OMG! OMG!

  8. @The Dude

    You could be right. I’ve seen it posted around Reddit that some of the forums in the deep web are just over run with trolls. But the forums still exist – there is still a place to hire a hitman even if some or even most of the requests are bogus. Who knows what’s legit and what isn’t?

  9. Honestly dude, I don’t want to pass judgement as to how serious this is, but some of the screen caps you posted just look retarded. “can you guys please kill my mom seriously I want her dead.” I mean, come on.

  10. As everything in life, bad comes with the good. Do not completely smear Tor over some handpicked uses that some people happen to use it for. It provides many other uses, it is a tool. Guns don’t kill people, people do.

    • That is a fair point, Bob. And after having spent more time reading about the Tor Project and given recent world events, I’d say that there is a lot of good that comes out of it. This bad side is still REALLY bad though.

  11. @Ben, I don’t want to provide a link to sources who make estimates at that number because most of them give more detail as to how to find these illegal sites. I will say that the number varies because it is impossible to know for certain. The 1% I used was from a reputable newspaper which I feel is reliable.

  12. “websites that are searchable by search engines such as Google make up just 1% of the content on the Internet”

    [citation needed]

  13. This sounds terrible; like the sort of shockumentaries that make you gag at the ends. I think this is one of those deep, unconsciously rooted bits of knowledge that we all have. We all -know- the internet is much larger, and much deeper than we are able to reach, but it is never real enough, or pressing enough to weigh on our minds until it has been discovered. As you’ve aptly stated with this article.

    It’s strange to me to think my whole life could go by without me ever seeing a sign of this. Without ever having an inkling that people were hiring hitmen to kill their mothers, or of sons and daughters being forced in to the trafficking business. Yet, I know it happens. I also know I haven’t the slightest idea how to stop it. As you have pointed out, the web is limitless. It is continuous, and compounding. Even though you have brought light to these dark corners of the internet world, I don’t think this is something that can be stopped by writing letters to congressmen; though I wish it were as easy.