The dark web is often viewed as the last bastion of privacy and anonymity online – a sacred hidden internet where hackers, cybercriminals and whistleblowers collide. Accessible via the Tor browser, the dark web can be used – at least in theory – to trade secrets, weapons, hacking tips, financial records and drugs.
In some cases, like the notorious Silk Road, the claims hold up. However, according to 24-year-old Razvan Eugen Gheorghe, the notorious hacker who formerly used the pseudonym GhostShell, the promise of anonymity through clandestine dealings is just a sham.
"The deep web, the one hosted on that so-called 'anonymous' network is the largest honeypot ever created by international agencies spearheaded by the US in collaboration with the UK," he said in an interview with DataBreaches.net.
"Every single creepy website about hired hitmen, cannibals, paedo sites, red rooms and all of that is fake. They're honeypots," he asserted. "The rest of the network are entrapments. Drug sites? Entrapment. Credit card shops? Entrapment. Hacker forums? Obvious entrapment. I mean 'Hell', the largest [forum] out there, is notorious for being filled with only Feds [FBI] and researchers that only go there to practice catching hackers."
What is the Dark Web?
The dark web is a section of the internet that is not indexed by search engines such as Google and not easily navigated to using a standard web browser.
Accessing the dark web requires specialised knowledge and software tools. An example of this is content only accessible by using the Tor software and anonymity network, which while protecting privacy, is often associated with illicit activities.
The dark web and the Tor browser have long-faced accusations of enabling illegal activity – from the sale of Class-A drugs to allowing terror groups to communication in private. However, recent security compromises and the widespread infiltration of police investigators has left many hackers sceptical as to how safe it really is. And GhostShell would know. At his peak, between 2012 and 2013, he was managing an experienced hacking collective that claimed to be responsible for breaches at the FBI, Pentagon and Nasa while routinely using the dark web to spread leaks.
'Hackers are incredibly rare'
Most recently, the hacker revealed his true identity to the media and admitted to a slew of previous cybercrime endeavours. He has also spent time dispelling some myths about Anonymous and the cyber-underground.
"Despite all the hype about hackers in recent years, hackers are incredibly rare, they're kind of like unicorns. And even when they do band together they do it in smaller numbers of three or four. Not dozens," he said.
"Unless you're being entrapped in a group like MalSec or AnonSec, you're not going to see legit hackers working together for long. Look at every single large hacker group that got caught. There are so many patterns to every single one of them it's not even funny."
Indeed, most hacktivist collectives – from Lizard Squad to Crackas with Attitude – end up imploding spectacularly. Only this year, the hackers responsible for a major breach at the US Department of Justice were found and arrested within a month. According to GhostShell, the hackers in this case broke the cardinal rule – boasting.
"The [worst] thing anyone can do is brag about what they know. You never do that – under no circumstances," he said.
"The moment you reveal a form of attack or just some general intelligence that others don't know about, then that intel no longer belongs to you. It's up for grabs and all the effort that you put into obtaining it is gone. Think about it like this: If you brag about an exploit that you know how to perform that other entities don't, then as soon as you reveal it and they have it then what good are you to them anymore? You'll just come out looking like a clueless tool."
For Gheorghe, who said he now wants to pursue a career in cybersecurity, there are two sides to the Anonymous hacking collective in its current form. "One of them is comprised of millions of individuals that band together under the same umbrella voicing their own opinions on different matters while the second one is made up almost entirely of Feds, paid trolls, researchers, informants and entrapped hackers," he said.
"The first collective believes that Anonymous is not a group but an idea, that it doesn't have any leaders or official voice. The latter is basically the exact opposite."