Computer Bot Goes on Dark Web Shopping Spree in the Name of Art

A controversial new exhibit seeks to uncover the secrets of the the internet’s black market.

Curious about the mysteries of the internet’s deepest and darkest crevices? Check out the new gallery exhibit from a bold Swiss art collective named !Mediengruppe Bitnik. The group has equipped a laptop with an automated bot designed to surf a massive online dark market site called Alpha Bay and make illicit purchases at random.

The bot is given a weekly budget of $100 in bitcoin, and the artists have no clue what kind of contraband will arrive at the gallery. Giving the program, also known as Random Darknet Shopper, free rein is certainly a risky move, since drugs and weaponry are available on the site. It’s sort of like a digital Secret Santa for illegal goods. What could be better?

This new exhibit isn’t !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s first foray into the shadowy corners of the internet marketplace. Random Darknet Shopper was first let loose in a gallery in Switzerland in 2014. Designed to buy one random item per week, the program spent the first few weeks ordering relatively innocuous, albeit illegal goods such as fake Nike sneakers, a baseball cap with a hidden camera and counterfeit Diesel jeans. It was when the mischievous bot ordered ten ecstasy tablets from Germany that authorities began to take notice.

Surprisingly, Swiss police were actually rather easygoing about Darknet Shopper’s shady dealings, deciding that the transactions were “reasonable means for the purpose of sparking public debate about questions related to the exhibition.” Not every police force has such a nuanced understanding of subversive contemporary art. Let’s hope authorities in the UK are this relaxed if !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s bot decides to, say, order a kidney or hire a hitman when the new exhibit opens in London.

“I sleep badly the night before it goes shopping,” one of the bot’s creators, Domagoj Smoljo, told The Independent in the UK. “It is something that is out of our control. We feel vulnerable, but at the same time we like it.” 

The Swiss exhibition resulted in some interesting purchases, like this passport scan bought from Hungary.

And these knock-off Diesel jeans from China.

And these fake Nikes, also from China.

The Random Darknet Shopper is on display beginning December 11 at the Horatio Junior gallery  in London.