Weapons, drugs and hitmen a click away on the Dark Web
A SINISTER online black market is emerging as a one-stop shop for criminals wanting guns, drugs, hitmen, hackers and passports.
Street deals down dark alleys and risks of police stings are becoming a thing of the past as crooks turn to their own secret underground internet the "Dark Web".
Just as on eBay, users can browse and buy within minutes.
But in this anonymous world, hidden from regular web searches, criminals can mask their identity and location using special software and pay with a virtual anonymous currency.
Websites are "plain" text, with pictures. Marketing and advertising is non-existent. Anything can be bought for a price, with user reviews rating deals and dealers. Hitmen offer their services for $20,000, European Union passports are flogged off from $3000.
South American cocaine, pure Dutch amphetamines (speed), ecstasy, LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, marijuana, psychedelics and prescription drugs are among 100 drugs sold on the notorious "Silk Road".
The site has become a haven for pill heads and pot smokers looking for the latest designer drug.
Handguns, rifles, shotguns, Tasers, explosives and ammunition are also a click away on the "Armory" forum with prices from $700 for a pistol to $4500 for an AK-47 assault rifle.
"These sites are an Aladdin's cave of criminality," State Fraud and Corporate Crime Group head Detective Superintendent Brian Hay said.
The director of Computer Zen, Toby Hazlett, who guided The Sunday Mail through the criminals' paradise, said: "It's like an eBay for illegal stuff and pretty much anything goes."
Users connect to the Dark Web with software that hides their identity, the most common known as TOR The Onion Router that connects to hidden onion domains.
Internet traffic is supposedly anonymous because encrypted data is channelled through a network of servers across the world to hide locations and usage, bouncing through relays and proxies with Internet Protocol addresses constantly changing.
"If you use this program on a distribution CD, in a free wireless zone like McDonald's ... the only risk you have is picking the item up," Mr Hazlett said.
Virtual, anonymous, currency "Bitcoins" are used to buy items. The exchange rate was $688.13 for 100 bitcoins late last week.
One hit-man site viewed by The Sunday Mail had price tags ranging from $20,000 to $200,000 to kill officials, police, photographers and journalists.
Another man, in Australia, offered to "hide" a member of the public for $1000 to $5000 a week.
Supt Hay said Dark Web sites were the "industrialisation of cyber crime" and a significant threat.
"Just like any marketplace, you have demand and supply and that's what this does," he said.
"It's a battlefield. It's very, very difficult to police, very difficult to combat.
"They are highly mobile, highly sophisticated, very technical, they have very good skills."
Viruses and sophisticated hackers were rampant on the Dark Web and data was traded and sold. "If you go in there playing around, expect to get stung," Supt Hay said.
"They are dangerous as far as vulnerability of your own computer; you've got some very highly skilled technical people there. They have greater skill sets than we have, they have better equipment - these people are driving the innovation."
She said online poker and games such as World of Warcraft were other methods used to launder money. "I think it would definitely be achievable to virtually be anonymous from the police but you would have to know what you were doing at each layer of technology," she said.
"Any sort of software that you were installing such as The Onion Router or data-scrubbing software you are exposing yourself to further risks if you don't understand who is providing the technology."
While having its critics TOR, created and used by the US Navy and still funded by the US Government, has been touted as a vehicle of free speech.
"Like most tools, they can be used for good or evil - it's just a question of how the individual puts it to use," Ms Peterschlingmann said.
The Federal Government has flagged laws for authorities to secure web histories for up to two years.
But experts said it would have little or no effect on people using anonymous software.
Supt Hay said the dark marketplaces were on law enforcement radar, with some sites taken down.
Several operations are continuing internationally, but authorities refuse to discuss them. In a joint operation with the US in 2007, a Malaysian man studying computer security at a Brisbane university was arrested over the production and distribution of counterfeit credit cards.
Information security expert Asha Rao, from RMIT University in Melbourne, told The Sunday Mail many of the sites could be phony and scammers needed only "one in a million" to make money.
Dr Rao questioned the Dark Web's anonymity and said: "If the police have not caught you it's because you are not big enough to fry yet.
"If you are going to do something like this, you really don't have anyone to complain to."
The hacking group Anonymous last year published IP addresses of people who had allegedly accessed child porn on hidden websites.
Mr Hazlett warned: "What I mainly see as a concern for teenagers if they end up looking up this kind of stuff, (is) there will be criminal charges.
"Next thing you know, you will have police kicking down some 16-year-old's door."
Late last month the Australian Federal Police issued six cautions to young people in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth suspected of being engaged in cybercrime-related activities after detecting suspicious online use.