Grams, a Google for the underground Internet
The last week has seen frenetic curiosity and underground online activity. All of it has to do with the beta launch of a search engine called Grams. It is the kind of frenzy Google generated when it was first launched.
While the interface resembles that of Google, there is one difference. People use search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo to search for all things legal. Grams, in the few days it has been around, is turning out to be the first port of call for all things illegal. That includes drugs of all kinds, arms, ammunition, fake currencies, passports and citizenship documents, and credit card numbers, among other things.
Attempts to elicit a response from Grams’ creator, who goes by the nickname gramsadmin, did not yield any results.
The message was sent to him on social networking site Reddit.com, where he announced the beta launch last week. This search engine cannot be accessed on any regular browser. It uses a different protocol and requires an altogether different browser that masks your online identity.
To grasp the significance of Grams, it is pertinent to first understand a concept. The Internet most people trawl to mine information is what hacks call the Surface Web. This is that portion of the World Wide Web that can be indexed by most search engines.
Below this surface, lies the Deep Web. This part is practically impossible to index by conventional search engines because of the various formats it exists in and the dynamic nature of its content. Estimates on how large the Deep Web is vary. But there is consensus that it is exponentially larger than the Surface Web.
A smaller part of the Deep Web is called the Dark Net. At first look, this is the Wild West, littered as it is with contraband of all kinds. The philosophical mooring that holds the Dark Net together though is freedom. That is why this place is used by political dissidents of all kinds to spreads their literature, whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden to pointers media outlets can scoop, and documents of all kinds that governments across the world don’t want people to set their eyes on.
To indulge in all of these, people who populate the Dark Net have to hide their digital footprints. To that extent, this is as perfect a place as it gets. That said, it is infested with malware and trolls of all kinds. You click on a wrong link and concede control of your machine to unscrupulous elements. As the saying goes on Dark Net, you get what you search for.
To access this part of the web, you need a piece of software called The Onion Router (TOR) Browser Bundle. It can be accessed on www.torproject.org from any regular browser. The bundle contains a browser called The Onion. Once installed, type http://grams7enufi7jmdl.onion/ into it and you’ll be taken to Grams.
All addresses on The Onion that point to the Dark Net end with the extension .onion, very unlike the .com, .org or .net URLs most websites on the Surface Web are identified with. These URLs are difficult to remember, are changed often to escape surveillance, and cannot be found on any other search engine.
Grams, in this phase, allows you crawl results from eight online black markets that include BlackBank, C9, Evolution, The Pirate Market and SilkRoad2. A comprehensive list of Dark Nets is listed on The Hidden Wiki (www.hidden-wiki.net). The links it contains can be accessed only if a user has the TOR Browser installed. A word of caution once again—all of these links are potentially dangerous and are monitored by intelligence agencies for leads on underworld activity.
SilkRoad2, for instance, in its earlier avatar SilkRoad, was one of the most active places for drug traders. The American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) busted it in a covert operation. But it has surfaced once again on the TOR network under the URL http://silkroad6ownowfk.onion/ and carries a self-congratulatory message—We Rise Again.
Trading on the Dark Net is usually conducted using Bitcoins, a form of virtual currency. Extremely volatile, at the time of writing this piece, one Bitcoin was trading in the Rs.30,000 region. While many countries have taken a view that recognizes Bitcoin as legitimate, albeit virtual, currency, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been more circumspect. Speaking at the Nasscom Leadership Forum in February this year, governor Raghuram Rajan said the central bank isn’t closed to the idea, but needs to study it in greater detail before putting out a formal policy on how it ought to be treated.
To get around central banks such as RBI that don’t have a formal policy in place yet, Grams allows users to check prices of their intended purchases in US dollars, the British pound and euros. Moving monies into various accounts involve ingenious techniques, most of which are now documented on http://grams7enufi7jmdl.onion/markets.
The most recent in the money transfer arsenal is a mechanism called 1776, which its developers claim “is designed as a fraud proof implementation of Silk Road”. Transactions are completed in just about 10 seconds. It follows on the back of security breaches and busts by law enforcement agencies in the past. All of these money transfers though are driven primarily to fund drug purchases or arms supplies.
As for the business model that powers Grams, it is again designed on the lines of Google. Gramsadmin writes that the site will “have a system similar to Google AdWords where vendors can buy keywords and their listings will go to the top of the search results when those keyword are searched for. They will be bordered by an advertisement disclaimer so users know those are paid results”.
In the Internet underbelly, this is clearly a game-changer. Who advertises on this site, how will e-commerce develop here, and what kinds of businesses these spawn from now all are open to speculation. There are no answers.