Assassination Politics

grarpamp grarpamp at
Mon Sep 26 16:10:07 PDT 2022

Behind the Sordid World of Online Assassination Betting

By Jamie Bartlett
6/01/15 11:35AM

I have heard rumors about this website, but I still cannot quite believe
that it exists. I am looking at what I think is a hit list.

There are photographs of people I recognize—prominent politicians,
mostly—and, next to each, an amount of money. The site’s creator, who
uses the pseudonym Kuwabatake Sanjuro, thinks that if you could pay to
have someone murdered with no chance—I mean absolutely zero chance—of
being caught, you would.

That’s one of the reasons why he has created the Assassination Market.

There are four simple instructions listed on its front page:

* Add a name to the list
* Add money to the pot in the person’s name
* Predict when that person will die
* Correct predictions get the pot

The Assassination Market can’t be found with a Google search. It sits on
a hidden, encrypted part of the internet that, until recently, could only
be accessed with a browser called The Onion Router, or Tor. Tor began life
as a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory project, but today exists as a
not-for-profit organization, partly funded by the U.S. government and
various civil liberties groups, allowing millions of people around the
world to browse the internet anonymously and securely.

To put it simply, Tor works by repeatedly encrypting computer activity and
routing it via several network nodes, or “onion routers,” in so doing
concealing the origin, destination, and content of the activity. Users of
Tor are untraceable, as are the websites, forums, and blogs that exist as
Tor Hidden Services, which use the same traffic encryption system to cloak
their location.

The Assassination Market may be hosted on an unfamiliar part of the net,
but it’s easy enough to find, if you know how to look. All that’s
required is simple (and free) Tor software. Then sign up, follow the
instructions, and wait. It is impossible to know the number of people who
are doing exactly that, but at the time of writing, if I correctly predict
the date of the death of Ben Bernanke, the former chairman of the Federal
Reserve, I’d receive approximately $56,000. It may seem like a fairly
pointless bet. It’s very difficult to guess when someone is going to
die. That’s why the Assassination Market has a fifth instruction:

* Making your prediction come true is entirely optional

The Dark Net

The Assassination Market is a radical example of what people do online
when under the cover of real or perceived anonymity. Beyond the more
familiar world of Google, Hotmail, and Amazon lies another side to the
internet: the dark net.

For some, the dark net refers to the encrypted world of Tor Hidden
Services, where users cannot be traced, and cannot be identified. For
others, it is those sites not indexed by conventional search engines: an
unknowable realm of password-protected dissident movements, pages,
unlinked websites, and hidden content accessible only to those in the
know, sometimes referred to as the “deep web.” It has also become a
catchall term for the myriad shocking, disturbing, and controversial
corners of the net—the realm of imagined criminals and lurking

The dark net, for me, describes an idea more than a particular place:
internet underworlds set apart yet connected to the internet we inhabit,
worlds of freedom and anonymity, where users say and do what they like,
often uncensored, unregulated, and outside of society’s norms. It is
dark because we rarely see these parts of digital life, save the
occasional flash of a hysterical news report or shocking statistic. This
is not a book about Tor, since the net is full of obscure corners, of
secret back alleys on parts of the internet you likely already know:
social media sites, normal websites, forums, chat rooms. I focus instead
on those digital cultures and communities that appear, to those that
aren’t part of them, dark, insidious, and beyond society’s
gaze—wherever I found them.

This dark net is rarely out of the news—with stories of young people
sharing homemade pornography, of cyberbullies and trolls tormenting
strangers, of hackers stealing and leaking personal photos, of political
or religious extremists peddling propaganda, of illegal goods, drugs, and
confidential documents only a click or two away appearing in headlines
almost daily—but it is still a world that is, for the most part,
unexplored and little understood. In reality, few people have ventured
into the darker recesses of the net to study these sites in any detail.

I started researching radical social and political movements in 2007, when
I spent two and a half years following Islamist extremists around Europe
and North America, trying to piece together a fragmented and largely
disjointed real-world network of young men who sympathized with al-Qaeda
ideology. By the time I’d finished my work in 2010, the world seemed to
be different.

Every new social or political phenomenon I encountered—from conspiracy
theorists to far-right activists to drug cultures—was increasingly
located and active online. I would frequently interview the same person
twice—once online and then again in real life—and feel as if I was
speaking to two different people. I was finding parallel worlds with
different rules, different patterns of behavior, different protagonists.

Every time I thought I’d reached the bottom of one online culture, I
discovered other connected, secretive realms still unexplored. Some
required a level of technical knowhow to access, some were extremely easy
to find. Although an increasingly important part of many people’s lives
and identities, these online spaces are mostly invisible: out of reach and
out of view. So I went in search of them.

My journey took me to new places online and offline. I became the
moderator of an infamous trolling group and spent weeks in forums
dedicated to cutting, starving, or killing yourself. I explored the
labyrinthine world of Tor Hidden Services in search of drugs, and to study
child pornography networks. I witnessed online wars between neo-Nazis and
antifascists on popular social media sites, and signed up to the latest
porn channels to examine current trends in homemade erotica. I visited a
Barcelona squat with anarchist Bitcoin programmers, run-down working
men’s clubs to speak to extreme nationalists, and a messy bedroom to
observe three girls make a small fortune performing sexually explicit acts
on camera to thousands of viewers. By exploring and comparing these
worlds, I also hoped to answer a difficult question: do the features of
anonymity and connectivity free the darker sides of our nature? And if so,

The Dark Net is not an effort to weigh up the pros and cons of the
internet. The same anonymity that allows the Assassination Market to
operate also keeps whistleblowers, human-rights campaigners, and activists
alive. For every destructive subculture I examined there are just as many
that are positive, helpful, and constructive.

Because the internet has become so interwoven into the fabric of our
lives, it presents a challenge to our existing notions of anonymity,
privacy, freedom, and censorship—throwing up new challenges not yet
resolved: should we have the right to complete anonymity online? Are our
“digital” identities distinct from our “real” ones—and what does
that mean? Are we prone to behave in particular ways when we sit behind a
screen? What are the limits of free expression in a world where every idea
is a click away?

Particularly since the revelations of the former National Security Agency
contractor Edward Snowden, these questions dominate debates and discussion
about the role of internet privacy and freedom in an increasingly digital
world. I don’t propose any easy answers or solutions. I’m not sure
that there are any. This book is not a polemic—more modestly, it is a
series of portraits about how these issues play out at the fringes. I
leave it entirely to you to decide what you think it means.


The net as we know it started life in the late 1960s, as a small
scientific project funded and run by the Advanced Research Projects Agency
(ARPA), a development arm of the U.S. military. The Pentagon hoped to
create an “Arpanet” of linked computers to help top American academics
share data sets and valuable computer space. In 1969, the first networked
connection was made between two computers in California. It was a network
that slowly grew.

In July 1973, Peter Kirstein, a young professor of computer science at
University College London, connected the UK to the Arpanet via the
Atlantic seabed phone cables, a job that made Kirstein the first person in
the UK online. “I had absolutely no idea what it would become!”
Kirstein tells me. “None of us did. We were scientists and academics
focused on trying to build and maintain a system which allowed data to be
shared quickly and easily.” The Arpanet, and its successor, the
internet, was built on principles that would allow these academics to work
effectively together: a network that was open, decentralized, accessible,
and censorship-free. These ideas would come to define what the internet
stood for: an unlimited world of people, information, and ideas.

The invention of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in 1978, and Usenet in
1979–80, introduced a new generation to life online. Unlike the
cloistered Arpanet, Usenet and BBS, the forerunners of the chat room and
forum, were available to anyone with a modem and a home computer. Although
small, slow, and primitive by today’s standards, they were attracting
thousands of people intrigued by a new virtual world. By the mid-nineties
and the emergence of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, the internet was
fully transformed: from a niche underground haunt frequented by computer
hobbyists and academics, to a popular hangout accessed by millions of
excited neophytes.

According to John Naughton, Professor of the Public Understanding of
Technology at the Open University, cyberspace at this time was more than
just a network of computers. Users saw it as “a new kind of place,”
with its own culture, its own identity, and its own rules.

The arrival of millions of “ordinary” people online stimulated fears
and hopes about what this new form of communication might do to us. Many
techno-optimists, such as the cheerleaders for the networked revolution
Wired and Mondo 2000 magazines, believed cyberspace would herald a new
dawn of learning and understanding, even the end of the national state.
The best statement of this view was the American essayist and prominent
cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the
Independence of Cyberspace,” which announced to the real world that
“your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and
context do not apply to us . . . our identities have no bodies, so, unlike
you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.”

Barlow believed that the lack of censorship and the anonymity that the net
seemed to offer would foster a freer, more open society, because people
could cast off the tyranny of their fixed real-world identities and create
themselves anew. (The New Yorker put it more succinctly: “On the
Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”) Leading psychologists of the
day, such as MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her influential 1995 study of
internet identity, Life on the Screen, offered a cautious welcome to the
way that online life could allow people to work through the different
elements of their identity.

But others worried what might happen if no one knows you’re a dog.
Parents panicked about children infected with “modem fever.” Soon
after Turkle’s study, another psychologist, John Suler, was studying the
behavior of participants in early chat rooms. He found that participants
tended to be more aggressive and angry online than offline. He suggested
this was because, when protected by a screen, people feel that real-world
social restrictions, responsibilities, and norms don’t apply. Whether
actual or perceived, anonymity, thought Suler, would allow you to explore
your identity, but it might also allow you to act without fear of being
held accountable (in 2001 he would call this “The Online Disinhibition

It’s true that from the outset, many BBS and Usenet subscribers were
treating cyberspace as a realm for all sorts of bizarre, creative,
offensive, and illegal behavior. In Usenet’s “Alternative”
hierarchy, anyone could set up a discussion group about anything they
wanted. The first group was alt.gourmand, a forum for recipes. This was
swiftly followed by, alt.drugs and alt.rock-n-roll. “Alt.,” as
it came to be known, immediately became the most popular part of Usenet by
far. Alongside purposeful and serious groups for literature, computing, or
science, Usenet and BBS contained many more dedicated to cyberbullying,
hacking, and pornography.

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

It was in this heady atmosphere that the radical libertarian Jim Bell
first took the promise of online anonymity to a terrifying conclusion. In
late 1992, a group of radical libertarians from California called the
“cypherpunks” set up an email list to propose and discuss how
cyberspace could be used to guarantee personal liberty, privacy, and
anonymity. Bell, a contributor to the list, believed that if citizens
could use the internet to send secret encrypted messages and trade using
untraceable currencies, it would be possible to create a functioning
market for almost anything. In 1995, he set out his ideas in an essay
called “Assassination Politics,” which he posted to the email list. It
made even the staunchly libertarian cypherpunks wince.

Bell proposed that an organization be set up that would ask citizens to
make anonymous digital cash donations to the prize pool of a public
figure. The organization would award the prize to whoever correctly
predicted that person’s death. This, argued Bell, wasn’t illegal, it
was just a type of gambling. But here’s the ruse: if enough people were
sufficiently angry with a particular individual—each anonymously
contributing just a few dollars—the prize pool would become so large
that someone would be incentivized to make a prediction and then fulfill
it themselves in order to take the pot.

This is where encrypted messages and untraceable payment systems come in.
A crowd-sourced—and untraceable—murder would unfold as follows. First,
the would-be assassin sends his prediction in an encrypted message that
can be opened only by a digital code known to the person who sent it. He
then makes the kill and sends the organization that code, which would
unlock his (correct) prediction. Once verified by the organization,
presumably by watching the news, the prize money—in the form of a
digital currency donated to the pot—would be publicly posted online as
an encrypted file. Again, that file can be unlocked only by a “key”
generated by whoever made the prediction. Without anyone knowing the
identity of anyone else, the organization would be able to verify the
prediction and award the prize to the person who made it.

The best bit, thought Bell, was that internet-enabled anonymity
safeguarded all parties, except perhaps the killer (and his or her
victim). Even if the police discovered who’d been contributing to the
cash prizes of people on the list, the donors could truthfully respond
that they had never directly asked for anyone to be killed. The
organization that ran the market couldn’t help either, because they
wouldn’t know who had donated, who had made predictions or who had
unlocked the cash file.

But Bell’s idea was about more than getting away with murder. He
believed that this system would exert a populist pressure on elected
representatives to be good. The worse the offender—the more he or she
outraged his or her citizens—the more likely they were to accumulate a
large pool, and incentivize potential assassins. (Bell believed Stalin,
Hitler, and Mussolini would all have been killed had such a market existed
at the time.) Ideally, no one would need to be killed. Bell hoped the very
existence of this market would mean no one would dare throw their hat into
the ring at all.

“Perfect anonymity, perfect secrecy, and perfect security,” he wrote,
“. . . combined with the ease and security with which these
contributions could be collected, would make being an abusive government
employee an extremely risky proposition. Chances are good that nobody
above the level of county commissioner would even risk staying in

In 1995, when Bell wrote “Assassination Politics,” this was all
hypothetical. Although Bell believed his market would ultimately lead to
the collapse of every government in the world, reality hadn’t caught up
with his imagination. Nearly two decades later, with the creation of
digital currencies like Bitcoin, anonymous browsers like Tor and
trustworthy encryption systems, it had, and Bell’s vision was realized.
“Killing is in most cases wrong, yes,” Sanjuro wrote when he launched
the Assassination Market in the summer of 2013:

However, this is an inevitable direction in the technological evolution
. . . When someone uses the law against you and/or infringes upon your
rights to life, liberty, property, trade or the pursuit of happiness,
you may now, in a safe manner from the comfort of your living room,
lower their life-expectancy in return.

There are, today, at least half a dozen names on the Assassination Market.
Although it is frightening, no one, as far as I can tell, has been
assassinated. Its significance lies not in its effectiveness, but in its
existence. It is typical of the sort of creativity and innovation that
characterizes the dark net: a place without limits, a place to push
boundaries, a place to express ideas without censorship, a place to sate
our curiosities and desires, whatever they may be. All dangerous,
magnificent, and uniquely human qualities.

Excerpted from The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie
Bartlett. Copyright © 2015. Courtesy of Melville House. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on
another website or distributed by any means without the written permission
of the publisher.

The US edition of The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld  comes out
tomorrow, June 2. We’ll be hosting Bartlett for a live Q&A tomorrow at 3
pm ET on Gizmodo, but until then, check out the first few chapters on
Bartlett’s deep dive into the web’s most sordid corners.

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