The Darknet is a place where human life has a $10,000 price tag. It’s a place where killers-for-hire advertise their “lack of empathy,” drug dealers openly sell their goods, and where cybercriminals pawn off stolen credit cards. It’s a place where the human slave trade never ended, where terrorists raise money, and it’s a place that law enforcement has trouble making any significant impact.
Yet, all of this could soon change. As terrorist organizations and criminal networks move to the Darknet, U.S. law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and private security companies are shifting their focus to the Internet’s underbelly.
The Pentagon and NASA are developing technology to search and index the Darknet, intelligence agencies are looking to the Darknet to fight terrorism, law enforcement agencies are going there to fight drug trafficking, and cybersecurity companies are turning their sights on the Darknet to stop cybercrime at its marketplace.
The timing couldn’t be more important. Just as the Internet gives legitimate business access to the global market, the Darknet has given criminals access to the global black market.
Terrorist organizations including ISIS are using the Darknet to accept donations, recruit fighters, and allegedly to plan attacks. Cybercriminals use the Darknet to market stolen credit cards and bank accounts, and make their actions profitable.
There are two sides to the Internet. The one most of us are familiar with is called the “Clearnet” or the “Surface Net.” It’s the Internet searched and indexed by services like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. It also only sees about 4 percent of the Internet’s actual use, and is really only the tip of the iceberg.
The other Internet is called the Deep Web. This is the Internet that exists outside what Google and other search engines see. It includes about 96 percent of the actual Internet.
“The Deep Web literally refers to all the unindexed content online. It’s code that’s transmitted to banks and governments and does not need to be indexed,” said Alex Winter, director of the documentary film “Deep Web,” which will air on the TV network Epix on May 31.
Most content on the Deep Web is technical code that has little interest. Winter said looking at most of it “is like looking under the hood of your car.”
Within the Deep Web, however, there is another space called the Darknet. It was created by the U.S. Navy, which wanted to maintain a space online to conduct national security business that could not be made public.
The Darknet can only be accessed using specialized tools, such as a Web browser called The Onion Router (TOR), which was created by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the mid-1990s. TOR masks a user’s identity to a certain extent by bouncing that person’s connection to the Internet around the world.
By existing outside the regulated Internet, and with its requirements of anonymity, the Darknet attracts the good and the bad. Some activists and political dissidents use it as a safe forum where they can discuss with one another or bypass censorship.
Yet, these same privacy features also make the Darknet a safe haven for people who traffic drugs, guns, stolen intellectual property, counterfeit documents, and other illegal goods.
A Light in the Dark
Law enforcement faces a key problem when fighting crime on the Darknet. Nobody really knows all the sites that exist on the Deep Web. There are a handful of markets and sites that are semi-public, yet there are many that exist only within small networks of individuals, and many others that emerge and sink as situations permit.
This is where the new Pentagon program comes in. It is developing software to search and index the part of the Internet previously defined by its absence from search websites like Google.
The program is called Memex, and is being developed by the Pentagon’s research and development department, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and 16 other organizations. There are plans to release it to the public as open source when it’s completed.
Its first target, according to DARPA, would be to fight human trafficking. The DARPA website states that “forums, chats, advertisements, job postings, hidden services” and other content “continues to enable a growing industry of modern slavery.”
There are parts of the Darknet that contain things more horrible than what most people could imagine. The market for pedophilia is rampant, with pornographic websites dedicated to the sexual abuse of children, with some offering extreme violence for entertainment.
There are organ tourism services that can murder people so their organs can be used for transplants. And there are a plethora of markets based around selling illegal firearms, fake passports, counterfeit cash, hacker services, and every drug imaginable.
By indexing the otherwise unseen places where human trafficking takes place on the Internet, DARPA believes Memex “would enable new opportunities to uncover and defeat trafficking enterprises.”
The developments at DARPA, however, are just a part of an overall push to bring rule of law to the Deep Web.
The FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht in 2013 for creating and operating a Darknet website called the Silk Road, which at the time was one of the major black markets for drugs.
Not long after, an estimated 50 percent of Darknet websites vanished when Irish authorities arrested Eric Eoin Marques, better known as the alleged “child-pornography kingpin” who ran the Freedom Hosting service that held Darknet websites.
The Pentagon and law enforcement agencies aren’t the only ones looking to bring order to the Darknet. Faced with a growing degree of cybertheft, private U.S. companies are also developing systems that allow them to track and recover data sold on the Darknet that was stolen through cyberattacks.
A co-founder of Darknet security company DBI said the marketplace for cybercrime on the Darknet is massive and growing. The source requested to remain anonymous, due to the nature of his work.
Credit cards on Darknet marketplaces are grouped according to which company they were stolen from, and have code names like “Arnold Schwarzenegger” to further mask their contents. Among them are credit cards stolen from most cyberattacks on U.S. companies that make national headlines.
You can simply check a box next to the stolen cards you want to buy, with those more recently stolen going for around $14 each and older ones going for around $4 to $8.
When it comes to law enforcement on the Darknet, however, the source said it’s important to note that behind each stolen credit card is a person who had his or her identity stolen, and that behind each theft is a person who can be caught—and finding these people requires going an extra step deeper into the Darknet.
By entering the chat rooms, the source said, they can get tips about when cybercriminals announce plans to attack certain companies. From there, they can call the companies and offer their services to mitigate the pending attack—often with mixed results.
“The hardest part of our business is getting corporate America to listen,” the source said.
Heads of large companies have only recently become privy to the importance of cybersecurity, and for many of them the Darknet is still an unheard of part of cybercrime. Yet, the source believes this is quickly changing.
The source gave an example. A while back there was chatter on the Darknet that cybercriminals were planning to attack a bank and steal millions of dollars. The source’s company called the bank and warned them. The bank refused assistance.
“The next day they called and said, we have been breached and they needed our help,” the source said. Over 800,000 of the bank’s records were stolen.
As a testament to the value of the Darknet for cybersecurity, the source said they were able to “get on the Darknet, remediate all the stolen records, and get them back without damage to the institution, and more importantly there were no victims.”
Modern Organized Crime
Whether it’s human trafficking, the sale of human organs, terrorism funding, or money laundering, the source said the Darknet “is where the new and anonymous organized crime is occurring.”
The source said a lot of the organized crime on the Darknet is committed from countries suffering from political conflict and broken socioeconomics. Governments in those countries will often turn a blind eye to organized crime, “because it’s filtering funds back into the system.”
There is a known relationship between failed states and organized crime. The White House strategy to combat transnational organized crime, released in July 2011, states that organized criminal groups threaten U.S. interests by “taking advantage of failed states or contested spaces.”
While taking advantage of the failed states, the report states, the criminal groups further destabilize these nations by forming alliances with corrupt government officials, and at times even work their way into the intelligence agencies of the country.
It adds the organized crime groups often turn to the Internet for “sophisticated fraud.” When the criminal organizations operating from failed states begin using the Internet for crime, the report says, there is risk they will begin transferring weapons to terrorists, or using the Internet to expand their “narco-trafficking and human and weapons smuggling networks.”
The source noted, however, that there is plenty of crime on the Darknet not related to criminal gangs or corrupt governments. “In the end, it’s often only about money, and on some occasions motives are personally driven,” the source said. “But that’s is not our concern—our concern is thwarting victimization.”
While crime has migrated to the Internet, law enforcement and many cybercrime-prevention companies are still fairly new to the game when it comes to navigating the Darknet.
Alex Winter, the director of Deep Web, said that in age of the Internet, this is a problem that law enforcement will soon need to address.
The approach to crime fighting online is similar to what happened during the golden age of piracy in the mid-to-late 1600s. Piracy was a product of colonialism, when maritime trade grew so fast that law enforcement couldn’t keep up, and pirates briefly thrived.
The way piracy was largely brought to an end, however, was when countries started focusing less on stopping the pirates, and more on cutting off their access to land-bases where stolen goods could be sold.
The Darknet is to online crime what the land-bases were to pirates, and fighting crime online will inevitably move toward the black markets found in the deeper parts of the Internet.
Regarding law enforcement’s inevitable shift to the Darknet, Winter said “the implications are huge.” He said it will raise the question of “how does the government police and try cases in the digital age.”
“While the changes are huge and impactful, they’re super embryonic,” Winter said, noting that with the introduction of the Internet and its effects on business, crime, and law enforcement, “it could take a long time before the dust is settled.”