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Crimes of the Dark Web
Beyond the regular world of the all-accessible Internet, lies a world of hidden platforms and communities used by only the darkest and most sinister of individuals. This hidden creation is called the Dark Web (DW). The Dark Web is a platform on the internet that is only accessible using a specific type of software. This software allows people to hide behind various IP addresses to remain undetected in order to complete illegal and extremist acts. This paper serves to go into detail about what the DW is and how it is used, what types of crimes are committed, and other illegal acts performed within it. It will explain the different domains that reside within the DW, what they are used for, and why they were so successful. This paper will also go into what kinds of individuals choose to use it, and why they feel the need to do so, and how they have been caught and stopped in the past. This paper will strive to cover all different aspects of the DW and all that is associated with it, to better understand its reason for existing.
Crimes of the Dark Web
There are many types of crimes committed in this world, however the most recently evolved platform for crime is known as the Dark Web (DW). The DW is a discrete online infrastructure used by miscreants such as terrorists, where they are able to share their ideologies and communicate with one another in often illegal activities (Chen, Chung, Qin, Reid, Sageman, & Weimann, 2008). The DW is the main support of crimes taking place in today’s cyberspace, and according to Alrwais, Li, Wang, Xie, and Yu, (2013), these crimes cause hundreds of millions in damage every year. There is still limited knowledge about DW infrastructures, despite progress being made to understand and disrupt the malignant activities (Alrwais, et al., 2013), though we do know from accounts of experience, as well as the little research that has been done, some of the happenings within DW social networks. This paper will serve to explain the DW, what it is used for, and the different domains associated with it. It will go into detail about how individuals access it, and the different reasons one might have to do so. This paper will also cover different domains within DW platforms, misconceptions about it, and various crimes committed associated with DW use.
What is the Dark Web and how is it accessed?
There are many different explanations used to define the DW, as it is something very difficult to understand. What is mainly understood about it is, the DW is a class of content on the internet that is part of something called the “Deep Web” (Chertoff & Simon, 2015). The Deep Web is a platform that is not available by standard search engines, meaning you cannot access it without the correct software (Gehl, 2014). Chertoff and Simon (2015) explain that the DW is used for near-complete anonymity to perform illegal acts away from the face of the public. According to some, the DW is a platform used for power and freedom, attempting to overcome growing social networking as well as state oppression (Gehl, 2014). To others, it is a place that is able to foster new opportunities for individuals with malicious intent to commit crimes and “dark business” in a more secretive fashion (Alrwais, et al., 2013). As mentioned before, it is impossible to enter the DW without proper software. There are different ways to be able to access the DW, but one of the most common ways is by use of “The Onion Router,” also known as “TOR” (Hayes, Cappa, & Cardon, 2018). The Onion Router is an infrastructure that can be used to create almost completely anonymous connections over a public domain, which is how individuals roam around the DW and utilize different internet services without being detected (Goldschlag, Reed, & Syverson, 1999). The Onion Router “covers your online tracks by blending your internet traffic into data from many servers worldwide to make you functionally invisible” (Hodson, 2014). The Onion Router was first created about 20 years ago as a military research project. Its original intention was to avoid traffic analysis (TA), which is used to identify IP addresses (Forte, 2006). The individuals running this research project lost control of the software, ultimately making it available to the general public, creating privacy on the internet that is almost impossible to control (Forte, 2006). The reason for this software being called an “onion” router, is likely due to the layers involved in it, starting with the all-accessible “surface web,” and moving deeper and deeper through layers into the DW (Weimann, 2016). It was Michael K. Bergman that stated the DW as compared to skimming a net across the surface of the ocean. You may catch a great deal within the net, however there is a breadth of information that resides deeper that cannot be reached (Weimann, 2015).
Who is using the Dark Web and Why?
To many, the DW is a terrifying place that should never be entered. As most people are aware, it is full of dangerous individuals, seeking out antisocial activities with others who share similar ideals and interests. The creation of the DW has allowed for individuals such as terrorists to reside within it undetected to go about their business. It is known that these terrorists have been active in public online platforms since the late 1990s, however would get shut down by counter-terrorism agencies. This is when then DW came in handy for these individuals, as the DW provides a kind of security that nowhere else is able to provide, and therefore is perfect to execute antisocial and illegal acts (Weimann, 2016). A recent study was conducted and found that 57% of the content residing within the DW consists of illegal content such as pornography, illicit finances, drug hubs, weapons trafficking, counterfeit currency, terrorist communication, and more (Moore & Rid). The DW is a host for marketplaces that allow “vendors” to sell illegal items to consumers using Bitcoin rather than actual money (Hayes, et al., 2018). Bitcoin is a crypto-currency that allows for these seller’s to anonymously trade illegal items on the DW without leaving a trail (Hayes, et al., 2018). It is believed that the DW marketplaces are so successful because consumers of these illegal items feel safe shopping there, because they can be almost certain they will never be caught due to the hefty precautions used within these sites (Hayes, et al., 2018). This high level of anonymity nurtures illegal activities within the DW including not only drug trafficking, but also credit card fraud and identity theft, as well as leaks of sensitive information (Chertoff & Simon, 2015).
There are various different groups of people that use the DW for their own personal gain, many of them being extremist or terrorist groups. One of the first major hate-sites that originated on the DW was a groups of neo-Nazi’s (Anwar & Abulaish, 2012). As of 2012, the neo-Nazi hate-site contained 58 different forums with a total of 619, 634 threads and over 8 million posts (Anwar & Abulaish, 2012). Evidence of these hate groups show the danger that is growing on DW forums, and the significant threat they pose to society. Accessibility to these extremist groups allow for a global audience to be present and share ideals world-wide with one another, that would not be able to be accomplished otherwise (Zhou, Reid, Qin, Chen, & Lai, 2005). Being online means hate groups can now grow larger than ever before. Not only can extremist ideals now reach entire communities in the real world, but those communities can now spread their ideals thousands of times faster and join with other communities across the world, allowing for a much bigger problem than we have ever faced before. A quote taken from Roversi (2006) states quite literally what is happening in the world due to these extreme terrorist groups residing on the DW. The quote reads as a testimony against the DW and its happenings of nostalgia for the Fascist era, videos appearing on extremist web sites of police and political “adversaries,” and propaganda being created against Blacks, gays, and Jews. The statement continues, arguing a complete “Balkanization” of the web slowly occurring (Roversi, 2006). Balkanization being a fragmentation of the internet that is hostile towards one another.
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The DW and its users have grown exponentially over the years. In 2007 alone, there was an estimated eight hundred active right-wing websites document in the US (Caiani & Parenti, 2009). As Caiani and Parenti (2009) point out, it is not just the number of extremist websites on the DW that is interesting, however it is the role the internet plays in these organizations that is gaining scientific interest. As research expands in this field, there are findings indicating the use of these sites being dissemination of propaganda, inciting violence, facilitate recruitment in order to reach a larger, more global audience, and to connect with others that have similar interests (Caiani & parenti, 2009). To prove further this usage of the DW, after the attacks in November of 2015 in Paris, ISIS turned to the DW to spread propaganda in an attempt to protect its supporters (Weimann, 2016). ISIS’s media outlet is known as Al-Hayat Media Center, where information is spread about the happenings within the group, allowing for people from all corners of the earth to reach and be informed of this growing terrorist organization (Weimann, 2016).
Researchers are still unsure about whether or not the ability to communicate secretly online is a causal factor for an increase in terrorism. It is known however, that this online accessibility substantially improves the ability of extremist groups to grow and prosper, with the capacity to reach a mass audience (Caiani & Parenti, 2009). It is clear that socially unacceptable activities are infinitely easier to execute within the DW than anywhere else, and it makes complete sense why groups such as ISIS would choose to turn to a platform such as this.
Domains within the Dark Web
As stated before, there are many different domains that reside outside as well as within the DW, one being known as the Silk Road (Lacson & Jones, 2016). The Silk Road was a cryptomarket that led to the popularity of DW marketplaces after its rise and fall between 2011 and 2013 (Hayes, et al. 2018). The Silk Road marketplace, throughout its nearly two years of operation, generated millions of dollars in revenue for those using it (Lacson & Jones, 2016). This platform was used mainly for drug dealers and buyers on an international level. The Silk Road was founded by a mysterious individual known as the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” and used web-based currency like bitcoin, supported military-grade privacy, and managed to stay out of the eyes of law enforcement everywhere for the two years it remained in use (Lacson & Jones, 2018). As stated before, sites like this are only accessible through the TOR browser, also known as The Onion Router, where URLs always consisted of seemingly random sets of characters, always followed by “.onion” (Lacson & Jones, 2018). It seems as though the “.onion” was yet another security feature among the many encryptions already in place. There was a study conducted by Maddox, Barratt, Allen, and Lenton (2015), in which they anonymously interviewed users of the Silk Road after its closure in 2013. Their study found that the Silk Road was not just used for buying and selling drugs, but it was also a place that supported personal freedom where open and safe discussions were able to be had regarding stigmatized and illegal behaviours between individuals who shared similar ideologies and interests (Maddox, Barratt, Allen, & Lenton, 2015). This private domain was a place where people could go to avoid public scrutiny and feel like part of a community.
Along with the Silk Road, there are also other domains and websites within the DW. The Assassination Market website is yet another platform that allows individuals to perform illegal acts. This platform is a prediction market where a party will place a bet on the date they believe a given individual will die. Whoever guesses accurately collects a payoff (Chertoff & Simon, 2015). Though this website is a prediction market, it provides incentive for the gamblers to assassinate the given individual in order to win the large sum of money (Chertoff & Simon, 2015). There are also websites that allow individuals to hire assassins, one being White Wolves, and another known as C’thuthlu (Chertoff & Simon, 2015). Alongside the Assassination Market, come other websites such as Banker & Co. and InstaCard, which are websites on the DW that facilitate untraceable financial transactions using bitcoins or an anonymous debit card issued by a bank (Chertoff & Simon, 2015). These websites also allow individuals to buy stolen credit card information, one in particular called Atlantic Carding offers this service (Chertoff & Simon, 2015). With these websites, it has never been easier to buy and sell illegal items on the internet.
Among all of the crimes committed in the world, those committed on the DW can be considered all the more dangerous. This being said, we must note that virtual crime is no different than crime in the real world. All that has changed is the medium to which people are utilizing to commit these crimes, and the breadth of people that can be reached at any given time (Chertoff & Simon, 2015). As discovered throughout this paper, the DW is a platform on the internet that allows for near complete anonymity on the web. This created a world for criminals to be able to exist in communities committing antisocial acts virtually unnoticed by the vast majority of people on and off the internet. It also allows for criminals to be able to reach a much larger audience than ever before, creating a large problem when it comes to terrorist and extremist groups, as well as the buying and selling of illegal items. This paper served to explore the DW and all it entails, from what it is, to how it was created, to how to access it, as well as various reasons people feel the need for such a destructive and hateful platform. There is still ongoing research regarding this topic, and much yet to be discovered about the DW. Despite this, it is believed we have a good grasp on this concept from a scientific standpoint, and will continue to strive to shut down the operations and happenings on the DW. As we continue this goal, researchers will continue to study and monitor different presences on the DW, both for scientific gain, and to ensure the safety of the public.
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