This article will explain what the dark web is and how it differs from other parts of the web in functionality. It will discuss the types of crimes harbored on the dark web, including drug trafficking and identity theft, and how law enforcement tracks and prosecutes dark web crimes related to web activity.
Note: FindLaw does not condone accessing the dark web or downloading encrypted browsers.
What Is the Dark Web?
The dark web operates in the shadows of the internet, reachable only through encrypted web browsers like Tor (short for "the onion router") and protected by VPNs (virtual private networks).
Websites on the dark web are most commonly encrypted — and thus difficult to track — using the Tor encryption tool. Most dark web users access those sites using the Tor browser. Other encryption tools and secure browsers, such as the Invisible Internet Project (I2P), can also provide entry to the deep web and the dark web. These tools are not universal by design; users must know the exact URL to access a site. There are no search engines or "Googling" for the dark web because that kind of indexing would provide a breadcrumb trail for investigators.
The way payments are processed adds another layer of anonymity. Silk Road, for example, only accepted payment via bitcoin, an unregulated cryptocurrency. As with the dark web, generally, there is nothing illegal about using bitcoin.
Is the Dark Web Illegal?
At least in the United States, visiting the dark web is legal in itself, even though it provides access to contraband and illegal activities.
In fact, much of what occurs on the dark web is illegal, even if accessing it is not against the law. Sites on the dark web allow users to remain anonymous through encryption. This is attractive to anyone involved in criminal activity. It is also attractive to political dissidents living under authoritarian rule and whistleblowers who fear retaliation.
Darknet, Dark Web, and Deep Web: What's the Difference?
The internet is often visualized as an iceberg. We call the easily visible part the surface web. Ordinary users can surf the web every day.
But the internet, like the iceberg, is much larger below the surface, where it remains hidden from view without the aid of specialized tools. The most significant part of the internet is the deep web. This term refers to parts of the internet that search engines can't find.
The deep web still falls under legitimate web use. It includes things that require permissions, like:
- Forums that require registration
- News sites that exist behind paywalls
- Files stored in the cloud
It also includes the behind-the-scenes business of the web, such as:
- Payment transmissions
- Email routing
- Webpages that are not worth indexing by search engines
- Content management systems, used by website operators, to upload and manage content
The darknet is part of the deep web, a network overlaid on the web. The darknet comprises nodes of peer-to-peer (or friend-to-friend) networks and privacy networks. Scientists, for example, store and share raw data for scientific research in peer-to-peer networks.
Privacy networks form the dark web. These networks use encryption from Tor, I2P, Freenet (now called Hyphanet), and DN42. This is where the anonymity of a Tor network enables black markets, drug deals, and cyberattacks.
Examples of Dark Web Crimes
In 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Ross Ulbricht (pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts"). He was operating an online marketplace for illicit drugs called the Silk Road.
On the so-called dark web, Ulbricht could remain anonymous and shielded — however briefly — from law enforcement. The Silk Road was not accessible through just any desktop browser. Nor could buyers use their credit cards to purchase heroin, methamphetamine, or other substances. However, as the notorious Silk Road was shut down, other dark web sites filled the void left behind, continuing the illegal drug trade and identity theft rings.
Crimes with covert transactions — whether they involve drugs, money, or even human beings — are often committed through the dark web. Here are some examples of dark web crimes:
How Dark Web Crimes Are Investigated
Because of the anonymous nature of the dark web, investigators have their work cut out for them. One of the main ways they catch criminals is by going undercover online. The criminals' web presence overlaps with real life when law enforcement officers posing as sellers obtain a buyer's mailing address.
The target of an investigation may slip up and reveal personally identifying information. That mistake allowed the U.S. government to take Ross Ulbricht. An Internal Revenue Service investigator found an incriminating comment and his email address. This information eventually led to his arrest. He was convicted of a range of crimes and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Shipping procedures provide investigators with valuable information because the U.S. Postal Service completes many transactions that begin on dark web markets. Law enforcement agencies can use surveillance footage, handwriting analysis, and other clues. They may find fingerprints on packages, potentially revealing the sender's identity.
Following the money can also be effective, though the anonymous nature of cryptocurrency makes that more difficult. Still, the Department of Homeland Security has a dedicated task force to track money laundering via cryptocurrencies.
Other approaches involve the use of sophisticated technology and hacking techniques. For example, the FBI used malware to go after child pornography site Playpen. The software caused users who clicked on the forum to reveal their real IP addresses. Another hacker technique exploited a vulnerability in the Tor browser, allowing investigators to see the IP addresses of dark web marketplaces and users.
Ultimately, the investigation and prosecution of dark web crimes remain a cat-and-mouse game between cybercriminals and cybersecurity.
Questions About Dark Web Crimes? Protect Yourself by Contacting a Criminal Defense Attorney Today
Everyone has a right to legal counsel. An attorney experienced in cybercrime understands the law and the technology and can provide a strong defense. Get legal help by contacting a skilled criminal defense attorney near you.