Before search engines like Google opened up the web to the wide world, you really had to know your way around the net to find what you were looking for—there was no passive browsing to discover new websites; you navigated directly to the webpage you needed. Same goes for the deep web today, and its host of black market customers.
Up until now, to buy illegal drugs or other contraband online, you needed to know the specific Tor browser URL, which meant a decent amount of savvy or some time spent trolling subreddits. Not anymore.
‘Grams’ (http://grams7enufi7jmdl.onion), a search engine for online underground markets, launched in beta this week. And it's pretty sharp.
Wired describes it as a 'Google for the dark net,' which isn't at all an exaggeration. The site mimics the search giant completely, from the rainbow logo to how the results are displayed to the indexing algorithm itself. By aggregating the hidden stores, it makes the dark marketplace much more accessible and easier to navigate. It's also super fast, especially for Tor. Like Google, it clocks the speed of each search, which I found was always about a second.
Right now Grams crawls eight markets: Agora, BlackBank, C9, Evolution, Mr. Nice Guy, Pandora, The Pirate Market, and SilkRoad2 (now on its third life). In this respect, it acts like a buyer's guide, not just a search engine. The site gives a descriptive blurb about each market, listing the number of users they have, the products they ban (hitmen, child pornography, deadly weapons…) their specialties (moonshine, fraud…) and what makes them unique (never been hacked!). Plus the direct URL.
For newbies to contraband commerce, this is real handy, not to mention it helps buyers stay up to date on when a website goes down and relaunches under a different address.
Browsing Mr. Nice Guy's newest items. Image: Mr. Nice Guy
The look and feel, features, and most importantly, inventory varies a lot from site to site. Pandora's at the top of its weed game, Agora can brag its had no coins hacked or seized, Mr. Nice Guy seems to take customer service quite seriously, and Cloud-Nine donates half its profits to charities—exactly the kind you'd imagine denizens of the deep web would want to support: Tor, Wikileaks, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Sean's Outpost, Free Software Foundation, and alleged Silk Road kingpin Ross Ulbricht.
Like e-shopping on sites that are on the up-and-up, or in brick-and-mortar stores, consumers are going to pick the experience that's the best fit for them. (I'm personally a fan of Agora.) The search engine just makes all this easier, by helping you shop the shops.
I reached out to the Grams founder to ask if there’s any worry that making it easier to find these illegal markets will also make it easier for hackers to target them or the Feds to shut them down. I'm still waiting to hear back, but I doubt he/she is overly concerned, having told Wiredthat “Grams did get hit by a DDoS attack after the launch of the beta version. It took us down for a few hours. [But] every major darknet site gets DDoS’d though so I took it as a ‘Welcome to the neighborhood’ message.”
For experienced dark net shoppers, Grams isn’t adding a whole lot to the experience. As one redditor pointed out, a search for MDMA pulled up more than 2,500 results, which isn't exactly useful. Sifting through "would probably take longer than going to each site and comparing prices manually,” redditor HurrDurrDrugs wrote. “The ability to filter by country, market, price range, and quantity (7g, 200 pills, whatever) would probably cut down results to a reasonable amount.” Most of the individual stores have their own search tools anyway, and some let you browse, in case, you know, you’re in the mood for something illegal, but aren’t sure what exactly.
A Grams search for MDMA pulled up 2,558 results in 1.2735 seconds. Image: Grams
Grams is definitely still a beta product—it's a little buggy, and has limited functionality for now. For one, queries have to be over three characters to work, so searches for, say, PCP or LSD, came up with zilch. It can filter buy price and newest items, but nothing else; that's planned for the next update, the site's founder, pseudonym gramsadmin, wrote on a reddit forum last week.
"If my algorithm I am working on works right, it should bring the vendors with the best feed back and best product to the top," gramsadmin wrote. That's based on good reviews, number of transactions, and how long the listing has been up.
For now it's still a bit Wild Westy, and the search results, from what I could tell after a very fun hour or so Googling (Gramsing?) various illicit items, skew heavily toward the most popular markets: Silk Road and Agora. Grams explained it can't spider the entire dark web, so right now is integrating sites based on submissions; the API is available to site admins so they can decide to be included in the algorithm search.
Still, you can easily find everything you'd expect—and some things you might not. (The "biotic materials" category surprised me—a transhumanist suite of pills and supplements to enhance the human body and brain.) Now, unregulated weapons ("3D-printed Liberator Blueprints"), any manner of fraud-related services ("Complete New Identity"), hackers-for-hire ("Look up Almost Anybodies SSN For You"), miscellaneous pseudocriminal products ("Anarchist Cookbook Version 2000"), and of course lots of porn and drugs are just an onion router, anonymous login, PGP key, Bitcoin wallet, and a few clicks away.