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Random Darknet Shopper: Exhibition featuring automated dark web purchases opens in London

An internet 'bot' has a budget of up to $100 every week, which it uses to procure random items from the deep web

Katie Grant
Saturday 12 December 2015 00:36 GMT

It is, perhaps, the world’s most curious lucky dip. A counterfeit designer shirt, a box of firecrackers and a Bitcoin “mining” device have all been dispatched at random from across the world to a London-based bargain hunter as part of a unique art project. Unlike most online shoppers, the consumer behind these purchases is not actually a human, though - it is an internet “bot”.

Random Darknet Shopper is an automated online shopping bot provided with a budget of up to $100 (around £66) worth of Bitcoins every week, which it uses to procure random items from the deep web - hidden parts of the web not accessible through conventional search engines and where users cannot be traced. The Dark Web has become notorious for being a supermarket for crimnals, with guns, drugs and fake IDs all said to be available.

Random Darknet Shopper is the brainchild of two Swiss artists, Carmen Weisskopf, 39, and Domagoj Smoljom, 36, who work together under the name !Mediengruppe Bitnik,and they are putting on public display the goods procured in an exhibition, opening on Saturday, that they say will explore the “darknet landscape”.

Each week a new item ordered randomly by the bot will be added to the exhibition space.

When the Independent visited the Horatio Jr gallery in Rotherhithe, south east London, was admittedly a little sparse, with just one item so far procured on display. The fake Lacoste polo shirt is accompanied with a printed receipt and envelope revealing it was dispatched by a vendor in Thailand going by the name “MrAsia” and that Random Darknet Shopper paid just $34 (£22) worth of Bitcoins for the garment.

Next week the artists, and Thomas Kitchin, who runs gallery where the exhibition will run until 5 February, expect to receive a Bitcoin miner - a piece of computer hardware that essentially searches for web for Bitcoin currency - for which the bot splashed out a modest $25 (£16).

The team has also received an invoice for its third purchase, snapped up in time for New Year’s Eve - a box of firecrackers, bought for $7 (£5). The receipt shows that the vendor, “Pyroman79”, listed the box of 20 triangle crackers under the “Weapons” category. “They are cheap and have a loud bang,” the vendor explains in the item description.

Ms Weisskopf said she both “excited and scared” about what the postman might end up delivering over the next few weeks.

When the artists ran their Random Darknet Shopper project in Switzerland between October 2014 and January this year the entire exhibition was seized by the public prosecutor in St Gallen after the badly behaved bot purchased a bag of ecstasy pills.

The authorities were unsure about how to build a case, though. “It was a bit unclear who they could press charges against,” Ms Weisskopf said. “They were unwilling to press charges against the bot. They decided that within the realm of art it should be possible to look at such things within an exhibition.”

The artists insist that while some transactions on the deep web involve dubious items such as drugs and weapons, for the most part it is actually “very nerdy”.

“A lot of the thing for sale are really pop culture items that people between 18 and 30 are interested in - the sneakers or jeans you need to have, or ebooks or hardware,” said Mr Smoljom. “They may be legally or illegally produced,” he added.

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