Six months ago a Reddit user by the name gramsadmin posted on /r/DarkNetMarkets to announce the launch of a new darknet search engine, Grams. Designed to be Google for the lesser-traveled portions of the internet, Grams has grown rapidly to become the most trusted search engine for patrons of the anonymous online markets that use bitcoins as their currency of choice.
Grams is also the home of Helix, a Bitcoin tumbling service. Gramsadmin describes it as “the definitive darknet Bitcoin cleaner.” What sets Helix apart from other Bitcoin tumbling services is that it “doesn't just clean your bitcoins, it gives you brand new ones, which have never been to the darknet before.” For this, the service charges a 3% fee. While gramsadmin was initially criticized for not revealing specifically how Helix works on the backend, the service has now gained widespread trust throughout the community based on a flawless four-month track record.
I contacted gramsadmin to learn more about these projects and to get his/her opinions concerning ethics on the darknet markets, the issues with running a business anonymously, and the future of Grams/Helix. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Cointelegraph: Why are you passionate about supporting darknet markets?
Gramsadmin: I am very passionate about supporting the darknet as a whole. I believe it is the future of the internet. It is also the frontier of the internet. There is so much innovation and new concepts, which have yet to be made for the darknet.
Grams is based around the darknet markets because that is where 90% of the content and services are for the Darkweb. I tried to make a full hidden web search engine before and had it fully integrated with Grams for a few months. I ended up reverting back to the original markets only platform because 99% of the hidden sites submit or spidered were scams or child porn.
They ended up cluttering up the results and making most search results unusable since it was not worth their time to sift through all the garbage sites to get to the content they were looking for. I plan on brining back the hidden onions search engine again, but next time I will not integrate it with the market results. It will have its own separate search.
CT: You told WIRED that, concerning employees, it’s very hard to hire a good programmer you can trust and still remain anonymous. I see you’ve at least found some reliable customer service associates. How did you get around those initial problems?
GA: I did end up hiring a support person to help with the many messages I get each day. Most of them are the same questions about pgp and bitcoins, or forgotten passwords. Support staff is much different than programmers though. The support staff doesn't have access to any code or any back end data for that matter. I have still not solved the finding good programmers problem yet, but I am working on it. I am trying a new programmer this week who I found off the darknet. He will not have access to my main server though. He will be working on some new Grams services that will have their own sites.
If he does good on these new projects and gains some trust from me, in a month or so I may let him work on some grams/helix code. It is still a very scary situation. I know a few markets have successfully hired many programs and it has worked out fine. On the other hand a few markets have also been hacked and who knows if it was an inside job.
My main goal with Grams/Helix is security. I have been trying for almost 7 months to gain the trust of the community and I will not compromise that by hiring just anyone to work on Grams.
CT: Do you purchase products off the darknet yourself? If so, what do you look for?
GA: No I have never purchased anything off the Darknet.
“The darknet was created mainly to fight the tyranny of governments. Darknet promotes freedoms not criminal acts.”
CT: You have a set policy of not allowing any child pornography/pedophilia search listings or advertisements. How has this been received by the darknet community? How important do you think this kind of self-policing will be to the future of anonymous networks?
GA: All the major markets have this policy so it was no surprise for anyone and I have gotten no comments on it either way from users. I think this "self-policing" as you put it shows how much of a community the darknet and mainly the darknet markets are. It shows we have morals and know where to draw the line.
The darknet was created mainly to fight the tyranny of governments. Darknet promotes freedoms not criminal acts. Victimless crimes such as using drugs is everyone's right and that is the purpose of the darknet. Once victims such as children from child porn get involved we as a community must use our conscience to put a stop to it, and I think that is what we have done.
CT: You mentioned in previous interviews that you had/have a small company and have been working in web development for almost a decade. Has Grams become your full-time job or are you still working on other projects?
GA: Before Helix was launched Grams was barely breaking even and that was only because of very helpful donors and advertisers. I was still devoting around 90% of my time to Grams because I believed in it, but I was losing hope and was about to shut it down. Helix saved Grams by bring in the revenue to allow me to devote my time to Grams without worrying every month if I was going to be able to pay my bills. I still do my clearnet sites, but they have switched to my side projects with Grams taking full focus and priority.
CT: What is Grams averaging in terms of unique users and searches per day?
GA: Grams averages around 10-12k searches a day and 6-8k unique users a day. It varies a lot because weekends tend to be slow.
CT: What is Helix averaging in terms of Bitcoin volume per day?
GA: Helix has 150 - 200 bitcoins going through every day.
“I am not really sure what my legal ramifications are but I am going to make sure I keep my anonymity so I never have to find out.”
CT: Bitcoin mixing, a service provided by Helix, could raise the attention of law enforcement due to money laundering concerns (not to mention the gray area that is offering drug market indexing). Are you worried about being targeted for prosecution?
GA: It is a concern of mine, which is why I keep security a number one priority. At the same time I can find a lot of clearnet Bitcoin tumbling services, which the owners could easily be tracked down and they have been prosecuted so that makes me feel better.
My answer is the same for the drug market indexing. There are plenty of clearnet sites that show you how to use the darknet and get to the markets. I am not really sure what my legal ramifications are but I am going to make sure I keep my anonymity so I never have to find out.
CT: Bitcoin, the “currency of the darknet,” has seen a bear market so far in 2014 with mostly flat Google search volume and a falling price. From your vantage point, has this stagnation affected the growth of darknet markets as well? Or have they continued to grow in use?
GA: Bitcoin price does not affect the darknet markets growth at all. Bitcoins are a tool the darknet uses and will continue to use no matter what the price is. It doesn't matter if the price of bitcoin is US$5 or US$500, a user will buy how many they need and then transfer them to the seller usually before much fluctuation in price.
I have defiantly seen the markets grow since Grams started. The biggest market when grams started had 10,000 listing. Now two markets have 19,000. In April when Grams was launched Bitcoin was around US$500 and now is at US$380. So I think that is clear evidence Bitcoin's price did not hinder the growth of the darknet markets.
CT: Any plans to reveal details on how your Helix system works on the back-end? Or will you continue to keep that a trade secret?
GA: No, Sorry that is a trade secret and is always evolving. I have changed the formula three times since launching helix to improve it and to keep anyone from figuring it out.
CT: What are some darknet innovations that you are most excited to see developed?
GA: I am currently working on an ad network like adsense. I also think making it easy for people to create their own onions is going to revolutionize the darknet. There is currently a group of programmers doing this and I am very excited to see their "easy onion" launch.
CT: Do you have any projects separate from Grams/Helix in the works?
GA: I have two projects in the works (the ad network, and a Bitcoin lottery), but both will integrate with Grams. I suspect everything I make with integrate with Grams just as Google has all their services but they all use the same Google account.
CT: Did you create Helix on your own? What was the development process like?
GA: I did create it on my own. I decided to make a tumbler because I thought it would be popular since grams was already trusted. I started looking at what other tumblers were doing to mix their coins. The process seemed very easy and not that effective. I decided to try other ways of hiding the origin of coins.
In the end, it ended up costing about 1-2% of each transaction. That is why Helix charges 3% but I hope users would be willing to pay more to have something done right by someone they trusted. I was right. I also learned support was the biggest thing. When bitcoins go missing or someone doesn't understand where they are - when support responds fast and lets them know everything is ok, that is what makes or breaks a site.
Helix has never lost any bitcoins and every time someone sent to the wrong or expired address we figure it and get them their coins with in 24 hours. Usually it’s less than 3 hours though. When there is no real accountability and site owners can turn and run at any time like on the darknet, constant presence on the forums and on support is what reassures users and ultimately makes a site succeed.
CT: Are you committed to running Grams and Helix for the long run? Or would you consider selling them if you received an intriguing offer?
GA: I like running Grams and I like being on the frontier of the internet's dark side. It would have to be an amazing offer for me to sell Grams and I would probably just use the money to create something new and different for TOR.
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