Secrets of the Darknet: From Nude Celebrities to Beheading Videos

The approach was full-frontal: the man messaged a woman on Facebook, offering her $5,000 if she would send him pictures of herself naked. He didn’t know her beyond the photo on her profile. But he wanted her pictures.

It’s a modern, skeevy internet version of the film Indecent Proposal, where Robert Redford offers a man a million dollars in return for a night with his wife. Except it was real; it happened a week or so ago, though it surely happens more often. Why did the man want a stranger’s naked pictures? To add to his collection of naked photos of other women, including celebrities and (so he claimed) athletes. She, unimpressed, told her partner.

Unlike in the film, the woman’s partner wasn’t accommodating. He was furious. Over the course of a messaging discussion on Facebook he cleverly drew out the would-be collector, who claimed to be rich and well connected. And the latter is just one of many. The whole “celebrity nudes hack” story – in which more than 400 photos stolen from 100 female celebrities and athletes appeared out of the blue on the messaging board 4chan last weekend – has revealed a vast, squirming internet subculture that trades in almost anything.

Members of the loose, geographically spread group that shared the celebrities’ pictures were based as far apart as the US west coast, the midwest and Holland – and that’s just the few we know of. They were able to get hold of the victims’ pictures by asking people who were using stolen emails and passwords to “rip” – collect all the stored data from – iCloud accounts that back up photos and other non-financial information from iPhones to Apple’s server. The hackers were paid using the new, almost untraceable online currency bitcoin.

That’s already two interlocking groups – the picture collectors and the hackers-for-hire – and we’ve only begun looking at one tiny corner of the internet. Then there are the out-and-out criminal gangs, groups discussing bizarre sexual fetishes, outlandish conspiracy theorists … There are hundreds of offshoots of these messaging boards. It’s only when you see all of these doors, each leading somewhere strange yet populated, that you realise what the internet is doing to us: creating a world of niches, of people’s peculiarly interlocking obsessions.

Did I say people? I meant men. It’s pretty much always men. The twin elements of obsessive involvement – something men tend to be more easily drawn into than women – and animal lust drives a lot of what you see.

It’s not all porn, of course. Internet niches are often neutral, or at least not directly harmful. Nor does it matter what the activity is, and whether it is legal or illegal. The internet doesn’t care, and often neither do the people perpetrating it. Jerky handheld camcorder recordings of just-released films. Celebrity nudes. Nude images of that woman you offered $5,000 to who turned you down but got hacked anyway. Radicalisation videos. Beheading videos. The darknet accommodates them all.

To the people in each world behind those doors, what they’re doing is right. Unless and until someone from the outside world stumbles or storms in and tells them different, everything is just as it should be. They are validated, their beliefs reinforced, however weird and twistedthey are.

This is the real way that the internet is changing society. Where 20 years ago, those people would have struggled to find each other, now they are only a keyboard and screen away. That’s not to deny the benefits of more internet access and the education it brings. But the deeper changes will play out long after this week’s events have been forgotten.


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