I Bought Adorable Cookies on the Deep Web
Online collective cybertwee wants to make anonymity tools like Bitcoin and Tor more accessible to everyone.
The package that arrived at my door this week. (Image: Kari Paul/Motherboard)
Last month, I bought Bitcoin on an online exchange and used the Tor browser to navigate to a secret .onion URL. There, I found detailed directions for how to buy cookies on the dark web and a PGP public key to use to encrypt an email with my Bitcoin address to pay for them. These weren't pot cookies, and they don't secretly have any nefarious use––they are homemade, delicious sugar cookies with glittery frosting that arrived at my door this week.
The baked goods aren't from a darknet drug market, but are part of a project from internet collective cybertwee to make these tools of anonymity more accessible to everyone, and to show anything can be sold on the dark web, a portion of the internet not indexed by search engines and accessible only through the anonymity network Tor.
Cybertwee founders Gabriella Hileman, May Waver, and Violet Forest first announced the project in September with a Kickstarter to fund ingredients for the cookies. They launched the 24-hour sale in November, sending backers of the campaign a link to a password-protected Tumblr site with step-by-step instructions for buying Bitcoin and using Tor.
The detailed instructions came in three tiers of difficulty and anonymity: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Beginner level involved simply sending Bitcoin to cybertwee by normal email whereas intermediate and advanced levels involved more safety precautions like encryption. In the end, cybertwee sold and distributed 95 cookies, all proceeds of which went to GynePunk, a DIY biohacker collective making reproductive health services more widely available through open-source tools.
"It was definitely a success," Hileman said of the sale. "I expected it to be kind of challenging, but in practice it was less complicated than I thought."
The cookies were priced at $7 for five cookies, including shipping, or 0.0212 BTC for each set at the time of the sale. Hileman and Forest said about half of the customers opted to do the intermediate or advanced levels, and the biggest challenge for them was figuring out encryption. They spent some time walking customers through setting up encryption and use it successfully, sharpening their own skills in the process.
Cybertwee added that the experience underscored for them the volatility of Bitcoin, which saw a 70 percent spike in value in November, right when the bake sale was scheduled. The founders had sent out an email to backers before the sale began reminding them to buy bitcoins early, as the currency generally takes about a week to show up in wallets after being purchased, but the collective had to be flexible on prices for customers due to the constant fluctuation.
Forest said she hopes the sale helped many people realize these tools are much easier to use than they may seem.
"People are afraid to try it, they think it is outside their abilities," she said. "I would like to see more people get into the deep web, especially people who identify as women, because there are so few women in this realm."
Hileman said her biggest concern was being hacked, or having bitcoins stolen. She said she experienced a bit of blowback for bringing cybertwee, self-described as focused on "femininity, sweetness, cuteness, and technology" to the dark web.
"There have been a couple of guys saying, 'You've ruined the dark web,'" she said. "People want this to be counter culture in a way, and feel threatened we are infiltrating their clique or something."
But as cybertwee's own manifesto says, their mission is not antithetical to the hard reputation the dark web has acquired. "Romantic is not weak. feminine is not weak. cute is not weak. we are fragmented and multifaceted bbs," it reads.