Adopted by more than 2.5 billion people in the first 20 years of its existence, the Internet has made our world more connected than ever before. It has completely altered the way we do business and conduct our daily lives, allowed a myriad of information to be available right at one’s fingertips, and been known to give a voice to the voiceless.
The Internet’s immense capabilities bring a slew of new challenges. Children can have access to inappropriate sites or be chatting and potentially meeting up with online “friends” who turn out to be predators. All the personal, corporate, and government data stored online means there is more opportunity for it to be compromised. The ease of information has provided insight for burglaries, kidnappings, terrorist attacks, and many other types of crimes. In fact, the Internet has created a breeding ground of illegal activity, ranging from piracy to hiring a contract killer and everything in between.
Criminals are especially using a section of the Internet called the Dark Web. To better understand the Dark Web, we should start from the beginning.
Think of the Internet with layers like an onion or levels like an iceberg. The top layer is called the Surface Web and it includes accessible pages that can be found by a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing. Search engines find pages that have been indexed. They crawl through websites using links to identify content.
Although the Surface Web is pretty big, most of the Internet’s information is stored on the Deep Web, which is 400-500 times bigger than the Surface Web. The Deep Web refers to pages that are still accessible from a normal browser but are not indexed and cannot be found by a search engine.
The media has often confused or interchanged the Deep Web with the Dark Web, but it’s important to note the difference. Just because information cannot be accessed by a search engine does not automatically mean it’s something shady. You probably use the Deep Web all the time. For example, say you wanted to search for and order your marriage certificate. You would have to do this through a portal on the Hawaii Vital Records website. Google and other search engines cannot crawl behind portals and search boxes embedded directly in websites because they have to use links. You, however, can use a search box, so the information is easily accessible to you via the Deep Web.
To recap, the Surface Web contains indexed pages that a search engine can access, while the Deep Web refers to non-indexed pages that a search engine cannot access. An average Internet user can easily navigate the Surface Web and Deep Web from their regular browser.
The Dark Web is a portion of the Deep Web that has been intentionally hidden and has to be accessed through a special browser such as Tor or I2P. These networks mask the user’s IP address, an identifier assigned to every computer and other Internet-connected devices that enables law enforcement to locate the user.
The anonymous nature of the Dark Web makes users feel more secure. Some may use the Dark Web to do law-abiding activity because they don’t like the idea of feeling spied on when using regular browsers, but the vast majority of activity that occurs on the Dark Web is illegal.
When Edward Snowden communicated with journalists and hackers released the identities of Ashley Madison users, they did it on the Dark Web. ISIS and their supporters also utilize the Dark Web. Perhaps the most well-known example of Dark Web use is Silk Road, an online black market known mostly for selling drugs using the cryptocurrency bitcoin.
Law Enforcement and the Dark Web
The theory behind the Dark Web is that law enforcement will not be able to access or find the websites and they won’t be able to figure out who runs the sites, who uses them, or ultimately who to arrest; However, as criminals have moved onto the Dark Web, police haven’t been far behind.
Police have employed a variety of techniques to bust technologically savvy criminals. Special departments are dedicated to investigating Internet crime. They have been known to go undercover and use malware to uncover real IP addresses. They have also used digital breadcrumbs left on the Deep Web, seized data from another arrest, followed large sums of bitcoin currency, and set up surveillance at the post office where the suspect is mailing packages of goods sold on the Dark Web to catch lawbreakers.
Researchers and other agencies are also working to uncover the mysteries of the Dark Web. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same agency that built the Internet, teamed up with NASA to create a search engine specifically for the Dark Web. This search engine, called Memex, has already been used to generate at least 20 active sex trafficking investigations.
Silk Road Arrest
In the case of the original Silk Road, founder Ross Ulbricht was ultimately caught during a sting operation. Department of Homeland Security investigator Jared Der-Yeghiayan managed to seize the account of a Silk Road lead administrator and began communicating with the founder who went by the alias Dread Pirate Roberts.
Ulbricht was a good match to the Dread Pirate Roberts profile, so a team of agents watched Ulbricht as Der-Yeghiayan continued chatting with him. Der-Yeghiayan convinced Dread Pirate Roberts to log into the Silk Road website and agents immediately seized Ulbricht’s laptop to confirm he was logged in under the Dread Pirate Roberts account. In 2015, Ulbricht received a life sentence on charges that included conspiracy to commit drug trafficking, money laundering, and computer hacking and was ordered to pay over $180 million.