Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

Virtual Economy: Dark Web and Robots- What Would A Bot Purchase?

There is an interesting art project being performed by a group of artists who work with the internet. They created a bot which anonymously purchases things with bitcoins they supply on the dark web and are sent to a set up location. There is a diversity of objects which they receive and they display the items in a gallery to show the landscape of things which can be purchased. The following is an interview with Carmen Weisskopf, a member of the group creating the exhibit.


Tell me about your art project to use a bot to randomly shop on the dark net.

The Random Darknet Shopper is a bot programmed to shop in the deep web or dark net once a week, with a maximum budget of $100 in Bitcoins.

What has your bot bought from the dark net?

Most items there have dubious legal status. Last year when we tried it we got a set of master keys used by fire fighters, cigarettes, fake jeans and trainers, some ebooks, a credit card, a scan of a passport and some ecstasy. That was the first time a bot had bought drugs. It raises the question of who is responsible for a bot's actions.

What has your shopper bot bought since you set it off again this month?

Some firecrackers, a fake Lacoste shirt and two USB devices to mine bitcoins. It chose these items randomly, but it did seem like the bot was saying: "OK you're not giving me enough money to spend".

How do you feel as you open up the unknown parcels delivered from the dark net?

It's always exciting, but it's also scary to run the bot and to see what it will buy. We're hoping for a diverse set of items that give a good insight into the dark net landscape.

Why would you want to randomly shop for things in the dark net? Isn't it a haven for illegal stuff?

So is the surface web! This project started out with the Snowden revelations. It made us re-evaluate mass surveillance of the surface web, where everyone who uses it is trackable. So we started looking at the dark net, where encryption is built in. It is a necessity for people to remain anonymous in certain situations. We started thinking about how trust is formed in an anonymous network. And we wanted to know what was actually sold and bought there.

What about trust? Has the bot been scammed yet, and paid for goods that haven't been delivered?

No. And this shows the level of trust that is there. The people who sell on these markets are used to trusting people online, and want to get a good rating. Even the Swiss police who seized the ecstasy bought by our bot were surprised at its quality compared to that available on the streets.

The long tail theory states that: “now, with online distribution and retail, we are entering a world of abundance. And the differences are profound.” Everything becomes available in the virtual face. Not only that, but prices become lowered as well. More things find connections on an a web-based site because of advertising and the suggestions that say, “people who bought this also purchased…” That being said, the darknet and all of its markets are not excluded from this theory. The cryptomarkets used present an extensive list of items which can be purchased through hundreds of different vendors. Where the bot was set up to purchase items, it didn’t stick to just purchasing a particular item every time. Something led it to purchase different items every time.


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