The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across a keyboard

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Is Your Character Working In the Dark? The Darknet: Information for Writers w/ Brian Spangler

Today, we are talking to Brian Spangler, a Kindle Scout winner with his novel KILLING KATIE. 

Fiona - 
Interestingly, I was just writing about the Darknet after attending an FBI seminar in NYC where Darknet was all the talk. 

Brian also used the Darknet as a major player in KILLING KATIE. Brian,  can you tell me about your background and how you came to know about the Darknet (you don't need to out yourself for nefarious activity).

Brian - 
I started my career as a software engineer, implementing imaging algorithms in C and Assembly code. Those were in the days when all things on the NET were considered Dark -- meaning, the Internet, as we know it, did not yet exist. 


When Yahoo, Google and Microsoft began indexing online content and when Netscape was the browser to have, I'd shifted from writing libraries and desktop applications to developing web applications. This was a new world to me where web pages replaced traditional client/server style applications. And with backend services being richer and handling volumes of traffic nobody had ever expected, we were all suddenly very connected.

Almost all of the work I do these days involves content that is published and made available online with the page visitor interacting and submitting data. A part of my job is understanding how users of our web content might gain access that is outside the intended path for them to take. For example, timed release of sensitive material can come under attack vectors that involve a spoofing pattern. 

Killing Katie was the first story I'd worked on where I could delve into some details that fit with my day-job. It was a terrific opportunity to mix fiction with career knowledge, and I had a blast researching and writing the book.

With part of my day-job involving application architecture, an understanding of the technology landscape is expected. The attack vectors I'd mentioned are just a sprinkling of what people are doing and using online. 

Staying current with what is available is the best way to understand how it might be used if you have online assets to protect. For my job, understanding browsers was an expectation. During my research, I learned about TOR -- The Onion Router -- which you can think of like a typical browser, but one that offers anonymity as you navigate online. And while Safari and Chrome have privacy modes, they do not offer anonymity beyond the client application. TOR, however, does. You see, TOR is more than a browser. It is a network of users, volunteering their computers to act as proxy points (web proxy servers) that receive and delivers a user's request. Not only is your client activity anonymous, but so is your navigation and travels and endpoints… everything. What else I learned while researching TOR was why it is popular. Everyone wants privacy, but a lot of us want to shop online for things we can't get from say Amazon or Newegg. There are stores upon stores that remain hidden from search engines like Google but are available if you use TOR. Why? It's all about anonymity.

For Killing Katie, I have a technical character who has developed a mind-blowing piece of software, which I modeled after TOR. The only difference is that my character's software adds a filtering capability, allowing my MC to narrow her searches: all of which is illegal.

Fiona - 
My understanding when it comes to the Darknet is "leave your morals behind." Who accesses the Darknet and why?

Brian - 
Good question, I'll give it a stab.

Who uses the DarkNet and Why?

The press has done a terrific job of making the DarkNet sound like some kind of vile black-market. IMO, anyone who craves privacy and who cannot readily purchase what they need elsewhere who are likely candidates to explore the notion of researching what is available.

For example (a completely fabricated scenario) -- a sick family member and a low-income household with no health insurance. If the medications are known and there is a known market on the DarkNet where a purchase can be made, then why not?

Granted, there are criminals who will capitalize on any opportunity. The Internet is just another venue for them to do so. Before computers, before telephones, before technology, there were criminals and markets to buy illegal goods and services.

Fiona - 
So in TOR and the onion, it's more than just routing the data through a bunch of volunteered computers to hide origins - it's also encrypted. Can you speak to this and how this makes it almost impossible for law enforcement to track.

Brian -
Encryption is a part of it. 

There is also a level of obfuscation, in that the path traveled is not a straight line. The more hops—that is, the more proxy servers in the path—the more difficult it is to determine a source. But it is also what happens to the message during the hops. When you use Amazon or Sears or any website, your hops are small. In addition, your browser and the destination application have exchanged information that exposes data packet details about the source and destination. 

With TOR, only a minimal set of data necessary to complete the communication is used. Where the encryption plays a role relates directly to why TOR's name is an ONION -- Layers. Each forwarding request (encrypted) is relayed to a new layer where the receiving proxy decrypts only the necessary components to forward to the next layer, re-encrypting again for the next layer. Layer to layer, wrapping, unwrapping and rewrapping, from client to destination, the originating message and path have transformed in a manner that ensures privacy and anonymity.

Fiona -
How do you find a location/store/thing you're looking for? How do you even access the DarkNet

Brian - 
The interesting thing about discovering Deep web resources is that a lot of information has become readily available searching via Google and Yahoo. Ironic. 

While that only gets you so far, it’s generally enough to get you started. Knowing about TOR was enough for me to research further and discover dark forums that provided addresses to all kinds of websites. Among the findings, a new search engine that worked very much like Bing, Google and Yahoo, but offering deep web resource links on the Darknet. For example, a year ago when I first researched Killing Katie, Grams was a search engine that offered links to Darknet resources.

Where Grams became a popular search tool, the now closed marketplace, SilkRoad (a TOR hidden service), is perhaps the most famous DarkNet online store.

Fiona -
In your book, one of Amy's concerns was falling into a police trap - can you speak to that? How does the FBI etc. set up stings in the DarkNet/what did Amy think might trap her? and BTW I've seen it written so many different ways is there a definitive way to write Darknet?

Brian -
So using Grams as an example from my previous answer, Grams lets anyone access a huge list of websites that offer services, drugs, firearms, and just about everything, illegal and not found, elsewhere. 

In Killing Katie, the scenario I envisioned where stings could apply was from the perspective of law enforcement acting like any other DarkNet user or merchant, posting a service in the deep web. 

In Amy’s case, she searches for deep web posts by people looking to procure a particular service. If law-enforcement wanted to catch Amy, they’d have posted that interest. To protect Amy’s interest, her techy partner develops a profiling tool to research posts, ensuring they never source from law-enforcement. I haven’t followed many real cases, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that law-enforcement isn’t already posting services or merchandise, anticipating an arrest.

(Fiona's aside FBI NYC indicates this is indeed what they do.)

Is it written DarkNet, Darknet or Deep Web? I’ve seen it a number of ways and have settled on using DarkNet as synonymous with Internet (or the Web), and referring to attainable resources as deep web resources. These would be web pages (files), links, etc. that are not indexed (visible) to search engines, but available via Grams, TOR or other DarkNet forum.
Fiona - 
Here on Thrillwriting I always ask if you will please tell the story behind your favorite scar.

Brian - 
Not sure I have any one that’s a favorite - scars always start with pain. But if I had to pick one, I’d pick an emotional one. When I was young, I used to write a lot. And then life got lifey: career, family, house… life. Twenty years later, it was the sudden death of a close friend that reminded me of what writing meant to me. I'd been asked to participate in his eulogy and sat down to write about him. It was the first time I’d written something non-technical related in nearly two decades.

I’ve been writing every day since.

Fiona - 
Thank you so much for sharing that, Brian. And thank you for this information.

See how the DarkNet was worked successfully into a crime plot in Killing Katie.

AMAZON LINK
Killing Katie -- A New Crime Thriller
Book 1 of the series:  An Affair With Murder

I was having an affair with murder.
There. I admit it. 

And there was no program for me--no rehab or clinic. I couldn't deny my obsession, my fantasy. Murder. 
It was only a matter of time before someone died. And I knew I wouldn't be able to stop after just one. 

So, when the temptations had become too intense, I risked everything for one little taste. Immediately, my life was filled with twists and turns and thrills--the seductive arms of a dark society embracing my desires, relentlessly drawing me in until I'd lost sight of who I was. 

But my husband is a police detective and some of my nightly adventures have showed up on his desk. My newfound world, my fantasies, they've bled into my family's lives. No matter what I try, I'm tangled up in a deep web of lies, telling one after another to throw off the suspicions of the man I love and save who we are. 

I know people live for the idea that their fantasies can come true. The question I began to ask was should they?

You can stay in touch with Brian at writtenbybrian.com

Thanks so much for stopping by!


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