Behind the Sordid World of Online Assassination Betting
This article appeared
June 1, 2015
There are photographs of people I recognize—prominent politicians, mostly—and, next to each, an amount of money. The site’s creator, who uses the pseudonym Kuwabatake Sanjuro, thinks that if you could pay to have someone murdered with no chance—I mean absolutely zero chance—of being caught, you would.
That’s one of the reasons why he has created the Assassination Market.
There are four simple instructions listed on its front page:
Add a name to the list
Add money to the pot in the person’s name
Predict when that person will die
Correct predictions get the pot
The Assassination Market can’t be found with a Google search. It sits on a hidden, encrypted part of the internet that, until recently, could only be accessed with a browser called The Onion Router, or Tor. Tor began life as a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory project, but today exists as a not-for-profit organization, partly funded by the U.S. government and various civil liberties groups, allowing millions of people around the world to browse the internet anonymously and securely.
To put it simply, Tor works by repeatedly encrypting computer activity and routing it via several network nodes, or “onion routers,” in so doing concealing the origin, destination, and content of the activity. Users of Tor are untraceable, as are the websites, forums, and blogs that exist as Tor Hidden Services, which use the same traffic encryption system to cloak their location.
The Assassination Market may be hosted on an unfamiliar part of the net, but it’s easy enough to find, if you know how to look. All that’s required is simple (and free) Tor software. Then sign up, follow the instructions, and wait. It is impossible to know the number of people who are doing exactly that, but at the time of writing, if I correctly predict the date of the death of Ben Bernanke, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, I’d receive approximately $56,000. It may seem like a fairly pointless bet. It’s very difficult to guess when someone is going to die. That’s why the Assassination Market has a fifth instruction:
Making your prediction come true is entirely optional
The Dark Net
The Assassination Market is a radical example of what people do online when under the cover of real or perceived anonymity. Beyond the more familiar world of Google, Hotmail, and Amazon lies another side to the internet: the dark net.
For some, the dark net refers to the encrypted world of Tor Hidden Services, where users cannot be traced, and cannot be identified. For others, it is those sites not indexed by conventional search engines: an unknowable realm of password-protected dissident movements, pages, unlinked websites, and hidden content accessible only to those in the know, sometimes referred to as the “deep web.” It has also become a catchall term for the myriad shocking, disturbing, and controversial corners of the net—the realm of imagined criminals and lurking predators.
The dark net, for me, describes an idea more than a particular place: internet underworlds set apart yet connected to the internet we inhabit, worlds of freedom and anonymity, where users say and do what they like, often uncensored, unregulated, and outside of society’s norms. It is dark because we rarely see these parts of digital life, save the occasional flash of a hysterical news report or shocking statistic. This is not a book about Tor, since the net is full of obscure corners, of secret back alleys on parts of the internet you likely already know: social media sites, normal websites, forums, chat rooms. I focus instead on those digital cultures and communities that appear, to those that aren’t part of them, dark, insidious, and beyond society’s gaze—wherever I found them.
This dark net is rarely out of the news—with stories of young people sharing homemade pornography, of cyberbullies and trolls tormenting strangers, of hackers stealing and leaking personal photos, of political or religious extremists peddling propaganda, of illegal goods, drugs, and confidential documents only a click or two away appearing in headlines almost daily—but it is still a world that is, for the most part, unexplored and little understood. In reality, few people have ventured into the darker recesses of the net to study these sites in any detail.
I started researching radical social and political movements in 2007, when I spent two and a half years following Islamist extremists around Europe and North America, trying to piece together a fragmented and largely disjointed real-world network of young men who sympathized with al-Qaeda ideology. By the time I’d finished my work in 2010, the world seemed to be different.
Every new social or political phenomenon I encountered—from conspiracy theorists to far-right activists to drug cultures—was increasingly located and active online. I would frequently interview the same person twice—once online and then again in real life—and feel as if I was speaking to two different people. I was finding parallel worlds with different rules, different patterns of behavior, different protagonists.
Every time I thought I’d reached the bottom of one online culture, I discovered other connected, secretive realms still unexplored. Some required a level of technical knowhow to access, some were extremely easy to find. Although an increasingly important part of many people’s lives and identities, these online spaces are mostly invisible: out of reach and out of view. So I went in search of them.
My journey took me to new places online and offline. I became the moderator of an infamous trolling group and spent weeks in forums dedicated to cutting, starving, or killing yourself. I explored the labyrinthine world of Tor Hidden Services in search of drugs, and to study child pornography networks. I witnessed online wars between neo-Nazis and antifascists on popular social media sites, and signed up to the latest porn channels to examine current trends in homemade erotica. I visited a Barcelona squat with anarchist Bitcoin programmers, run-down working men’s clubs to speak to extreme nationalists, and a messy bedroom to observe three girls make a small fortune performing sexually explicit acts on camera to thousands of viewers. By exploring and comparing these worlds, I also hoped to answer a difficult question: do the features of anonymity and connectivity free the darker sides of our nature? And if so, how?
The Dark Net is not an effort to weigh up the pros and cons of the internet. The same anonymity that allows the Assassination Market to operate also keeps whistleblowers, human-rights campaigners, and activists alive. For every destructive subculture I examined there are just as many that are positive, helpful, and constructive.
Because the internet has become so interwoven into the fabric of our lives, it presents a challenge to our existing notions of anonymity, privacy, freedom, and censorship—throwing up new challenges not yet resolved: should we have the right to complete anonymity online? Are our “digital” identities distinct from our “real” ones—and what does that mean? Are we prone to behave in particular ways when we sit behind a screen? What are the limits of free expression in a world where every idea is a click away?
Particularly since the revelations of the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, these questions dominate debates and discussion about the role of internet privacy and freedom in an increasingly digital world. I don’t propose any easy answers or solutions. I’m not sure that there are any. This book is not a polemic—more modestly, it is a series of portraits about how these issues play out at the fringes. I leave it entirely to you to decide what you think it means.
The net as we know it started life in the late 1960s, as a small scientific project funded and run by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a development arm of the U.S. military. The Pentagon hoped to create an “Arpanet” of linked computers to help top American academics share data sets and valuable computer space. In 1969, the first networked connection was made between two computers in California. It was a network that slowly grew.
In July 1973, Peter Kirstein, a young professor of computer science at University College London, connected the UK to the Arpanet via the Atlantic seabed phone cables, a job that made Kirstein the first person in the UK online. “I had absolutely no idea what it would become!” Kirstein tells me. “None of us did. We were scientists and academics focused on trying to build and maintain a system which allowed data to be shared quickly and easily.” The Arpanet, and its successor, the internet, was built on principles that would allow these academics to work effectively together: a network that was open, decentralized, accessible, and censorship-free. These ideas would come to define what the internet stood for: an unlimited world of people, information, and ideas.
The invention of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in 1978, and Usenet in 1979–80, introduced a new generation to life online. Unlike the cloistered Arpanet, Usenet and BBS, the forerunners of the chat room and forum, were available to anyone with a modem and a home computer. Although small, slow, and primitive by today’s standards, they were attracting thousands of people intrigued by a new virtual world. By the mid-nineties and the emergence of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, the internet was fully transformed: from a niche underground haunt frequented by computer hobbyists and academics, to a popular hangout accessed by millions of excited neophytes.
According to John Naughton, Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University, cyberspace at this time was more than just a network of computers. Users saw it as “a new kind of place,” with its own culture, its own identity, and its own rules.
The arrival of millions of “ordinary” people online stimulated fears and hopes about what this new form of communication might do to us. Many techno-optimists, such as the cheerleaders for the networked revolution Wired and Mondo 2000 magazines, believed cyberspace would herald a new dawn of learning and understanding, even the end of the national state. The best statement of this view was the American essayist and prominent cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which announced to the real world that “your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us . . . our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.”
Barlow believed that the lack of censorship and the anonymity that the net seemed to offer would foster a freer, more open society, because people could cast off the tyranny of their fixed real-world identities and create themselves anew. (The New Yorker put it more succinctly: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”) Leading psychologists of the day, such as MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her influential 1995 study of internet identity, Life on the Screen, offered a cautious welcome to the way that online life could allow people to work through the different elements of their identity.
But others worried what might happen if no one knows you’re a dog. Parents panicked about children infected with “modem fever.” Soon after Turkle’s study, another psychologist, John Suler, was studying the behavior of participants in early chat rooms. He found that participants tended to be more aggressive and angry online than offline. He suggested this was because, when protected by a screen, people feel that real-world social restrictions, responsibilities, and norms don’t apply. Whether actual or perceived, anonymity, thought Suler, would allow you to explore your identity, but it might also allow you to act without fear of being held accountable (in 2001 he would call this “The Online Disinhibition Effect”).
It’s true that from the outset, many BBS and Usenet subscribers were treating cyberspace as a realm for all sorts of bizarre, creative, offensive, and illegal behavior. In Usenet’s “Alternative” hierarchy, anyone could set up a discussion group about anything they wanted. The first group was alt.gourmand, a forum for recipes. This was swiftly followed by alt.sex, alt.drugs and alt.rock-n-roll. “Alt.,” as it came to be known, immediately became the most popular part of Usenet by far. Alongside purposeful and serious groups for literature, computing, or science, Usenet and BBS contained many more dedicated to cyberbullying, hacking, and pornography.
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death
It was in this heady atmosphere that the radical libertarian Jim Bell first took the promise of online anonymity to a terrifying conclusion. In late 1992, a group of radical libertarians from California called the “cypherpunks” set up an email list to propose and discuss how cyberspace could be used to guarantee personal liberty, privacy, and anonymity. Bell, a contributor to the list, believed that if citizens could use the internet to send secret encrypted messages and trade using untraceable currencies, it would be possible to create a functioning market for almost anything. In 1995, he set out his ideas in an essay called “Assassination Politics,” which he posted to the email list. It made even the staunchly libertarian cypherpunks wince.
Bell proposed that an organization be set up that would ask citizens to make anonymous digital cash donations to the prize pool of a public figure. The organization would award the prize to whoever correctly predicted that person’s death. This, argued Bell, wasn’t illegal, it was just a type of gambling. But here’s the ruse: if enough people were sufficiently angry with a particular individual—each anonymously contributing just a few dollars—the prize pool would become so large that someone would be incentivized to make a prediction and then fulfill it themselves in order to take the pot.
This is where encrypted messages and untraceable payment systems come in. A crowd-sourced—and untraceable—murder would unfold as follows. First, the would-be assassin sends his prediction in an encrypted message that can be opened only by a digital code known to the person who sent it. He then makes the kill and sends the organization that code, which would unlock his (correct) prediction. Once verified by the organization, presumably by watching the news, the prize money—in the form of a digital currency donated to the pot—would be publicly posted online as an encrypted file. Again, that file can be unlocked only by a “key” generated by whoever made the prediction. Without anyone knowing the identity of anyone else, the organization would be able to verify the prediction and award the prize to the person who made it.
The best bit, thought Bell, was that internet-enabled anonymity safeguarded all parties, except perhaps the killer (and his or her victim). Even if the police discovered who’d been contributing to the cash prizes of people on the list, the donors could truthfully respond that they had never directly asked for anyone to be killed. The organization that ran the market couldn’t help either, because they wouldn’t know who had donated, who had made predictions or who had unlocked the cash file.
But Bell’s idea was about more than getting away with murder. He believed that this system would exert a populist pressure on elected representatives to be good. The worse the offender—the more he or she outraged his or her citizens—the more likely they were to accumulate a large pool, and incentivize potential assassins. (Bell believed Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini would all have been killed had such a market existed at the time.) Ideally, no one would need to be killed. Bell hoped the very existence of this market would mean no one would dare throw their hat into the ring at all.
“Perfect anonymity, perfect secrecy, and perfect security,” he wrote, “. . . combined with the ease and security with which these contributions could be collected, would make being an abusive government employee an extremely risky proposition. Chances are good that nobody above the level of county commissioner would even risk staying in office.”
In 1995, when Bell wrote “Assassination Politics,” this was all hypothetical. Although Bell believed his market would ultimately lead to the collapse of every government in the world, reality hadn’t caught up with his imagination. Nearly two decades later, with the creation of digital currencies like Bitcoin, anonymous browsers like Tor and trustworthy encryption systems, it had, and Bell’s vision was realized. “Killing is in most cases wrong, yes,” Sanjuro wrote when he launched the Assassination Market in the summer of 2013:
However, this is an inevitable direction in the technological evolution . . . When someone uses the law against you and/or infringes upon your rights to life, liberty, property, trade or the pursuit of happiness, you may now, in a safe manner from the comfort of your living room, lower their life-expectancy in return.
There are, today, at least half a dozen names on the Assassination Market. Although it is frightening, no one, as far as I can tell, has been assassinated. Its significance lies not in its effectiveness, but in its existence. It is typical of the sort of creativity and innovation that characterizes the dark net: a place without limits, a place to push boundaries, a place to express ideas without censorship, a place to sate our curiosities and desires, whatever they may be. All dangerous, magnificent, and uniquely human qualities.
Excerpted from The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett. Copyright © 2015. Courtesy of Melville House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
The US edition of The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld comes out tomorrow, June 2. We’ll be hosting Bartlett for a live Q&A tomorrow at 3 pm ET on Gizmodo, but until then, check out the first few chapters on Bartlett’s deep dive into the web’s most sordid corners.
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