On the dark website Silk Road, seizure by the FBI in 2013, users could find anything from prescription drugs, to the party drug MDMA, to exotic Afghani heroin. The same vast portfolio of products fills the pages of AlphaBay, Dream Market, Silk Road3, Hansa – to name a few of the biggest marketplaces on the Dark Web nowadays. Ordering drugs there is as simple as ordering a product through Amazon or e-Bay. The market size is large and growing – Silk Road 2.0 for instance generated as much as 8$ million in sales per month. But what makes Dark Web marketplaces fearfully interesting is that the boom of drug-commerce startups also branches into more threatening markets: weapons and child pornography exchanges, prostitution services, malware trades, hitman and death-dealing.
The impact of this hidden commerce on the “clear world”, on public security, is not to be underestimated. In July 2016, a shooting rampage in Munich, Germany, killed 10 people and injured 36. According to the president of the Bavarian Office of Criminal Investigation, the gunman purchased the weapon on the Dark Web. More recently, in May 2017, more than 150 countries and 300,000 machines experienced the largest cyberattack to date operated through the malware WannaCry. The cybersecurity company CYR3CON found evidence of hackers discussing the exploit used for WannaCry on Dark Web forums, before the attacks happened. Portions of malware code are also largely sold on marketplaces on the Dark Web, for prices ranging from 15$ up to 20000$.
But what is the Dark Web? And why is it an interesting place for criminal activities? The web, as we commonly know it, is just the first of multiple layers of accessibility of the Internet. The first layer can be accessed through regular search engines, such as Google, and is where social media platforms reside. We call this layer Clear web or Surface web. The second layer, the Deep web, consists of all the data that cannot be accessed by traditional search engines; these data can range from bank transactions to closed WhatsApp groups. A small part of the Deep Web is the Dark web. Here content has been intentionally concealed and users can surf anonymously. In order to reach the Dark Web and to access its content, one needs to install a certain program whose function is similar to that of a web browser, the most common being The Onion Browser (TOR).
The Dark Web is legally used for several legitimate purposes, for example to avoid identity theft, for marketing tracking, to circumvent censorship, to perform research on topics that might be sensitive in certain countries. Nevertheless, as is the case for many breakthrough technologies, criminal practices have been facilitated alongside legitimate uses. The key-element which makes the Dark Web attractive for high-tech and organised crime is anonymity: identities are hidden via TOR and virtual currencies such as Bitcoin allow anonymous financial transactions.
Several elements make the investigation of crime on the Dark Web challenging: the novelty of the technology, the induced and unprecedented move of several crimes into a relatively new transnational context, the technical challenges posed by the technology itself, which is not easily accessible for research as open data sources are. The change and exponential growth of the crime specifically on market places poses a formidable challenge for the foreseeable future, since Dark Web sites proliferate at a rate far greater than law enforcement has been able to intervene.
Policing crime on the Dark Web raises a number of additional issues. Traditional approaches bring limited success in a cybercrime community that can develop countermeasures fast. “One size-fits-all” approaches against crime on the Dark Web hold little promise, since there are a wide variety of crimes occurring. “Total-block” strategies, meaning strategies based on shuttering down all anonymous networks, are impossible. The challenge is to find a balance between individual freedoms, such as freedom of speech, and the need to fight crime.
The main condition for success for policing crime on the Dark Web is to keep up with the pace of innovation governing the Dark Web technologies. A transnational effort of law enforcement agencies and focus on advanced, flexible and quickly adaptable innovations are needs-to-have. Awareness and understanding of how the Dark Web facilitates criminal processes and the economy are also essential perquisites.
Today’s issues, opportunities and needs for innovation for policing the Dark Web will be specifically explored in our forthcoming workshop. Places at this event are limited and interested parties must complete an application by Tuesday 13th June. Further information about the event can be found on the workshop’s page.