The Information Superhighway is dark and full of terrors.
May 1, 2014 3:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm gearing up to write an article about "anonymous deep web marketplaces" like Silk Road 2.0. This most likely necessitates visiting them. Is this a terrible idea?

I write about bitcoin a lot for my job, and part of that entails exploring BTC's continued popularity in the deep web, specifically the digital black market. After reading a lot of second-hand reports I decided for my next article I should probably visit one of these markets myself to get a better sense of how they actually work.

However, everything I read about needing to use Tor, plus all the generally shady stuff going on (it's a black market, after all) makes me a little wary. In short, I just want to make sure I'm not doing something incredibly stupid by visiting Silk Road 2.0 or Agora.

I've already cleared it with my work so they don't think I'm shopping for drugs on the company dime. Thanks for any advice.
posted by joechip to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdata, and I'm at work so I cant google it for you, but I know some journalists have ordered from silk road, to write about it. I am far from being a lawyer, but I doubt just visiting the website is even illegal (depending on jurisdiction, of course).
posted by Jacen at 3:42 PM on May 1, 2014

I think your primary risk from visiting such sites is that they may be more likely than normal to try to run exploits against your browser in order to get malware onto your machine. If I were you, I'd either browse from a machine that doesn't have anything important on it, or browse from a virtual machine, which isolates the virtual guest OS from the host OS.

IANAL, but just visiting said sites seems unlikely to land you into legal trouble. If you ever have to pay for illicit wares or otherwise break the law in the course of your research, then you should talk to a lawyer first.
posted by Aleyn at 3:56 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you actually do something illegal you run the risk of being caught. Saying "it was just a research project" may or may not get you off.

Pete Townshend eventually got cleared, for example, but oh what a hassle!
posted by alms at 4:01 PM on May 1, 2014

Response by poster: To clarify a bit, I don't plan on actually purchasing drugs.
posted by joechip at 4:04 PM on May 1, 2014

Best answer: Perhaps give Tails a try. Make a bootable USB drive from it, pull out (or at least disconnect) your normal boot drive and boot up from Tails. Tails will put you into Tor by default, which will anonymize your traffic for the most part. (Mostly it anonymizes your location).

Keep in mind that Tor is going to share your connection with other Tor users, just as you are sharing theirs, so you don't really want to be on your work network (you didn't say either way)-- not as much because you'd be risking internal stuff as you never know what bandwidth it could eat if you let it.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:29 PM on May 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

You have nothing to worry about. It's no more illegal to go on Silk Road (2.0) than to walk through the Tenderloin in SF :P
posted by jjmoney at 4:45 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd be worried less about legality than the possibility for some kind of malware, so it might be worth doing it in some kind of virtual machine setup.
posted by Sequence at 7:35 PM on May 1, 2014

Best answer: I have had a few conversations about this with people who deep-dive the dark web for their work. My understanding is that it's not illegal to browse the sites - it's just that you want to be very careful, and slightly paranoid about the people there too. And of course, don't try to buy anything.

Just make sure to use a Virtual Machine or other setup that doesn't expose your normal computer and/or network. I've heard good things about Tails as well, although I've never used it. A completely empty but up to date computer - not hooked up to your internal network at all, but only to the internet - would probably work too. Just nuke everything and rebuild it completely afterwards.

If you plan on doing it from your workplace, speak to an IT person first if you have one. Not only to warn them (so they don't freak out about weirdness in their logs), but to perhaps get some assistance to do it safely too.

Please post back with how it went - sounds like an interesting article!
posted by gemmy at 9:29 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you really want to minimize risk, I'd suggest running an ssh tunnel to a remote box, and doing everything from a remote box. In, say, India or some other country. This would help prevent you and the IP address of your home computer from ending up on yet another watchlist.

Get a geek-friend to walk you through setting it up.

The experience would also be useful training/background research/fodder for your writing. Sort of method acting and really making sure you've got the details right in your writing.

Note that if you're using bitcoins somehow known to be connected to your public id, if you were to use them remotely to, say, tip a drug dealer and verify that you can do transactions, then that would compromise your public identity, because the transactions are public. Unless you wash them in a tumblr or something.

I've already cleared it with my work so they don't think I'm shopping for drugs on the company dime. Thanks for any advice.

Consider printing out the email and mailing it to yourself so that you get a cheap timestamp, if some law enforcement starts pestering you.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:23 PM on May 1, 2014

Response by poster: Just a li'l update: the piece had been commissioned for Vice, but I just found out it got killed so I'm not sure where it'll see the light of day. But I did get on the deep web via Tails on an empty computer, and it was quite fun. Thanks for the info everyone!
posted by joechip at 12:33 PM on December 18, 2014

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