Guns. Drugs. Child pornography. Murder for hire. All are for sale on the nefarious online marketplace known as the DarkNet where anonymous buyers trade virtual currency like Bitcoin for kilos of cocaine and crates of automatic weapons.
But the FBI has revealed that it’s cracking down on criminal groups who use the technology for illegal transactions in a primer that warns against the dangers of the DarkNet marketplaces.
Between October 22 and October 28 in an initiative named Operation Hyperion, FBI agents made contact with more than 150 individuals around the country suspected of purchasing illicit items from various DarkNet marketplaces. Some of these individuals confessed to ordering a range of illegal drugs and controlled substances online, including heroin, cocaine, morphine, and ketamine.
The initiative was the brainchild of the Five Eyes Law Enforcement Group (FELEG), an international coalition of law-enforcement agencies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States who share criminal intelligence and collaborate on operations to combat transnational crime. FELEG has created a Cyber Crime Working Group to focus on identifying the sophisticated perpetrators operating key criminal services in the cyber underground marketplace.
What is the Deep Web?
The part of the Internet that most of us are familiar with is known as the Clear Web or Surface Web, which contains content for the general public that is indexed by traditional search engines like Google.
But experts say that the web that most of us use every day only accounts for around 0.03 percent of the total internet. The DarkNet marketplaces are located on the Deep Web — the part where no one cares about search-engine optimization because they are trying to hide, not to be more visible. The content is still available to anyone, but requires the exact URL to find it.The software primarily used for encrypting, hosting, and browsing Deep Web sites is known as Tor or The Onion Router, named for its sites’ .onion suffix. The tools were originally developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and DARPA, the advanced research arm of the Department of Defense (DOD) — which means that, as Fox Business reports, Tor is actually funded by taxpayers.
Every computer has what is referred to as an IP address that broadcasts a user’s physical location every time they are online. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) can be used along with Tor to keep a user’s location private.
Who’s on it?
The FBI points out that criminals obviously operate on the Clear Web and the Deep Web, and that there are also legitimate activities taking place on the DarkNet.
There are many legitimate uses for Tor. For example, many citizens and journalists use the anonymous browser due to privacy concerns and to protect confidential sources.
But unfortunately, criminal groups gravitate toward the technology and the DarkNet due to the fact that it offers anonymity.
What’s for sale?
Typically, products and services available for purchase involve child sexual exploitation; drugs; guns; chemical, biological, and radiological materials and knowledge; stolen goods; counterfeit goods; and computer-hacking tools. Payment for these goods and services is usually through virtual currency such as Bitcoin, which also designed to be anonymous.
The worst of the illicit DarkNet marketplaces are like an evil parallel universe where buyers and sellers leave Amazon- and Yelp-style reviews — but instead of an Italian restaurant or new book, reviews appear for “topics including the quality of child-pornography images or the speed at which a cache of guns is mailed to its buyer.”
What’s being done?
The FBI has stated that it focuses on large criminal organizations and the technical infrastructure that shields them. They have had some successes, but it continues to be a massive battle.
Ross Ulbricht, aka “Dread Pirate Roberts,” who founded the original Silk Road underground-drug marketplace in early 2011, was sentenced to life in prison in May 2015. The second version of the site was launched a few weeks later, and in November 2014, federal law enforcement moved against Silk Road 2.0. The site was taken down, and the website’s operator was arrested and charged.
The Department of Justice revealed in a 2015 press release that Silk Road 2.0 had around 150,000 users per month and generated approximately $8 million in sales per month.
As of May 2016, Silk Road 3 was reportedly back online and open for business.
Main photo: Backlit keyboard [Wikimedia Commons]