Review: Cyberbunker: The Criminal Underworld
Written and directed by Kilian Lieb and Max Rainer, Cyberbunker is a Netflix documentary about a group of hackers that enabled the proliferation of dark web forums where illegal materials were bought and sold.
Cyberbunker: The Criminal Underworld
The documentary begins with a special police unit performing a raid in what looks like a military bunker. We are then shown a thin individual with glasses and long, gray hair: Herman Johan Xennt.
The (now) 64-year-old Dutchman, who is currently serving a prison sentence in Germany, is a bunker aficionado, having been fascinated with them since he visited a WWII bunker in Arnhem when he was a kid.
Understanding the possibilities of computer technology and the internet, he first opened a profitable computer store in the early 90s. In 1995, with the money earned from this business, he was able to buy a former NATO bunker in the southern part of the Netherlands, which ended up being the location of the first Cyberbunker – a company that provides internet and web hosting services to questionable operations.
In 2002, a fire broke in the bunker and revealed the existence of an MDMA lab. Xennt claimes that he knew nothing about the lab and that he was simply subletting part of the bunker to another group. For many years after, the company’s servers were located above ground, in Amsterdam. In 2013, Xennt found and purchased a 5-level underground Cold War-era bunker in Traben-Trarbach, a small town in the South of Germany.
But the town’s mayor soon grew suspicious of the activities going on in the bunker and decided to contact the authorities, which started telephone surveillance in 2015. The group communicated in codes, though, which made crime identification impossible. In 2017, the authories began monitoring the network node to identify illegal data traffic.
This led to the discovery of evidence of criminal activity: Cyberbunker provided hosting for dark web marketplaces, a forum for exchanging illegal drugs, counterfeit money and fake identification, and more.
The undercover operation provided crucial information to the police, helping them to plan and execute a successful raid. Xennt and his criminal colleagues were arrested, and over 280 servers hosting websites for up to 200 customers were shut down.
The idea of “freedom of the internet”
Cyberbunker was know among cybercriminals as a “bulletproof hoster”, which meant that the servers hosting the content stayed online no matter what (i.e., even if the authorities requested sites’ removal). It also guaranteed privacy, which was very convenient for anyone who wanted to host questionable or illegal content.
Cyberbunker advertised that it would host everything except child pornography and terrorism-related content, but the group later claimed that they didn’t really know what the clients were using their servers for.
The group was driven by the idea of “freedom of the internet” and, during the interviews with all the members of the group (including Xennt), we can see that they have a twisted idea of what it should be.
They went so far as to declare the Republic of Cyberbunker, with its “administration” and hierarchy, and perpetuated the delusion that what they were doing was good.
Does it strike the right chord?
The documentary is suitable for a wide audience and does not burden the spectator with technical details. Instead, it has a movie-like format that’s captivating and easy to follow.
The timeline of the events is well presented and clear, complemented with historical data about the main “character” – Xennt – and original private and police footage.
The authors tried to create a tense and scary atmosphere, though the characters at times act bizarrely and seem out of touch with reality that, on occasion, you might almost feel sorry for them. It’s hard to believe these individuals thought they were untouchable and that, even after getting arrested, they were still convinced they were making the world a better place.