For anywhere between 20,000 and 100,000 euros, Mason will kill the mark of your choice. His only ethical restrictions are that he won’t “fix” anyone who’s pregnant or under 18. Mason claims to have worked as a hit man for more than 15 years in Europe, but he has just started advertising his services online. Not on the Internet. On the darknet.
It’s an alternate online universe where users are untraceable. “This is the only way I can offer my services to a wider audience,” says Mason, obviously not his real name, who hosts his own page on the darknet.
To get there, you need to download software that conceals your Internet protocol address. The best known is Tor, initially developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to protect government communications. Tor receives funding from U.S. and Swedish governments.
Tor started in 2001 with noble intentions: to provide Internet privacy to people who needed it, like users who didn’t want advertisers to store information on them, business owners who wanted secure online banking, and protesters in oppressed countries who wanted to organize revolutions. Its logo is an onion, which represents its layers of encryption. URLs end in .onion instead of the typical .com or .ca, and though you can find some on Google, you can’t open the pages. Tor, based outside of Boston, is still used by the military, police, activists and journalists.
But like most inventions, it can be subverted: the software connects drug dealers and users, sadists and snuff films, pedophiles and child porn, hit men and their clients.
“Criminals will use any technology,” says Andrew Lewman, Tor’s executive director. “Cars were not designed to help a bank robber.” While Tor administrators alert authorities about any illegal activity they find, they don’t go looking for it.
Chester Wisniewski, a senior security adviser at Sophos Canada, an IT security business, says the good and the bad of the darknet are a package deal. “There’s a dark, seedy underbelly to the whole thing, but I think that’s true anywhere where we see speech is free,” Wisniewski says. “I don’t like that child pornographers and drug dealers have a voice on the darknet, but I think it comes with the territory.” The darknet has also been used as a tool in the Arab Spring, allowing activists to anonymously communicate with each other to organize protests and avoid government censure.
The darknet also features an online marketplace called Silk Road, one of its better-known sites. It allows users to buy illegal drugs using Bitcoins, an encrypted digital currency. You can buy an eight-ball of cocaine much like you can order a book from Amazon.
When it comes to child pornography, the darknet is a portal to closed groups that are very sophisticated. “It’s like you would have a club and you have to be invited in,” says Parry Aftab, founder and executive director of WiredSafety, an American charity that promotes Internet safety and education. “They have some of the tightest Internet security that exists, often more than a ministry of defence.” Pedophiles who are good at hiding often move servers every few days, scramble their IPs, and use code words. While more secure than the regular Internet, it isn’t foolproof. Aftab says they still catch criminals—it just takes more digging. “There’s always somebody who’s stupid in the group who gets careless. It’s just old-fashioned law enforcement and luck.”
There’s no way to confirm that Mason is a hit man and not a 15-year-old boy in Kansas, but he was emailing in stilted English, quoted his prices in euros, and said he was a Caucasian male over the age of 35. His prices are on a sliding scale, depending on whether the victim is a public figure, how much time it will take to kill the intended target, and whether the client wants the murder to look like an accident. But even if he isn’t the real deal, there are plenty out there who are. “The darkweb offers people an escape route,” he says. “As long as there is a consumer, there shall always be a provider.”