This is an article I have been eager to write for some time, regarding this very important tool used by organised crime networks, fraudsters and other criminals.
But what is the dark web? In a nutshell, there’s the internet most of us know and use; websites with friendly names which operate publicly, trade legitimately and are easily found using search engines. But beyond this there is another internet – the dark web.
In the mid-1990s, US military researchers created a technology that allowed intelligence operatives to exchange information completely anonymously. They called it ‘Tor’, which stands for ‘The Onion Router’.
As part of their strategy for secrecy, they released Tor into the public domain for anyone to use.
Tor spread widely and today is a critical part of the so-called dark web: a network of untraceable online activity and hidden websites, of which Tor hosts approximately 30,000. That anonymity has attracted many people; all who want to keep their activities hidden.
What is the dark web?
These websites have deliberately obscure addresses and cannot be found by accident. They are not indexed by any search engines. In order to access them, a user must download special software – and the technology means that they do so anonymously.
There are many legitimate uses for the dark web – but it also enables online criminal activity. In a recent study of over 5,000 sites on the dark web, it was found that just over half were dealing in illicit activities, including forged passports, stolen credit card details, firearms and hard core drugs, sites offering images of child sexual abuse and extremism.
Researchers spent three months trawling just one such site. They found eight sellers offering multiple British passports, false UK driving licences, templates for faking Barclays and HSBC bank statements. Their research surfaced 30,000 illegal products for sale and drugs worth £26 million. They found a trade of nearly £2 million in illegal documents including EU identity cards for £142 each and driving licences from EU countries for £419.
The dark web was brought into sharp focus in Munich in July 2016, when Ali David Sonboly, aged 18, murdered nine people using a Glock 9mm pistol purchased through an illicit site.
One of the most notorious sites is ‘Silk Road’, worth nearly £1 billion before it was shut down by FBI agents in 2013. However, the site appears to have re-surfaced under a different identity in March 2016.
Islamic State jihadists are known to be adept at using the kind of encoded technology that enabled the use of the dark web and have repeatedly shared guides on how to do it. Unfortunately, there are open sites that show people how to set up sites in the dark web.
High profile hacks
The dark web hit the headlines in August 2015 after it was reported that 10GB of data stolen from Ashley Madison, a site designed to enable bored spouses to cheat on their partners, was dumped on to the dark web. Hackers stole the data and some Madison users received blackmail letters or have the infidelity exposed.
Challenges faced by police
As the software used to gain access to the sites disguises the computer’s IP address, police cannot usually track offenders. Now more and more the criminals have been using a global system of online credits called Bitcoins – which have the advantage of being anonymous.
The United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in its annual report published in July this year, made particular note of the issues thrown up by the illicit trade of goods and drugs on the so-called dark web, stating that many countries’ law enforcement agencies are simply not dealing with the trade networks that have grown across the mostly uncharted expanse of the dark web.
Police major successes
The police, however, have had some major successes. In January this year, for example, the FBI used hacking methods never seen before in the history of law enforcement, to bring down the owners and clients of the largest child pornography website found on the dark web to date.
A bulletin board website named Playpen that enabled users to sign up and then upload any images they liked was launched in August 2014 on the dark web and, according to court documents, the website’s primary purpose was to advertise and distribute child pornography.
At its peak, Playpen had almost 215,000 members, more than 117,000 posts and received an average of 11,000 unique visitors a week. The FBI discovered numerous posts featuring extreme child abuse imagery, as well as providing advice on how potential child sex abusers could avoid detection online.
After seizing the computer server running Playpen from a web host, the FBI deployed a network investigative technique (NIT) – a hacking tool – and used a single warrant to uncover 1,300 IP addresses, tracing these addresses back to actual individuals. When visitors accessed the website, although their traffic might have been encrypted, a Flash application was secretly installed on the user’s computer that quietly sent important data about the user straight to the FBI.
Training law enforcement agents
In 2015, Europol designed a “specialised training course”, the first of its kind, to help participants learn how to navigate the dark web and take down cyber-criminals. This involved live law enforcement site takedowns of the created marketplaces, as well as penetration testing on marketplaces to determine whether systems were vulnerable.
The same year, the UK government launched a dedicated cybercrime unit to tackle the dark web, with a particular focus on cracking down on serious crime rings and child pornography. The National Crime Agency (NCA) and UK intelligence outfit GCHQ are together creating the Joint Operations Cell (JOC).
To keep one step ahead of cybercriminals and those who trade illicit items through the dark web means law enforcement agencies worldwide will need to increasingly invest in counter measures, and share experiences and tools through international agencies such as Europol. A major challenge for the 21st century.
By David Thomas
David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform www.safecommunitiesalgarve.com here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website www.safecommunitiesportugal.com launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on 913045093 or at www.facebook.com/scalgarve