In 2013, Ross Ulbricht (pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts") was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 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, just as the notorious Silk Road was shut down, other Dark Web sites filled the void left behind.
The Dark Web operates in the shadows of the internet, reachable only through encrypted browsers. This article will explain what the Dark Web is and how it differs from other parts of the web. It will discuss the types of crimes harbored on the Dark Web, and how law enforcement tracks and prosecutes Dark Web crimes.
Note: FindLaw does not condone accessing the Dark Web or downloading encrypted browsers. Do so at your own risk.
Is the Dark Web Illegal?
Much of what occurs on the Dark Web is illegal, even if accessing it is not against the law. Dark Web sites allow users to remain anonymous through encryption. This is attractive to anyone involved in criminal activity. It is also useful for political dissidents living under authoritarian rule, and for whistleblowers who fear retaliation. So, even though it is legal to visit the Dark Web, but it provides access to contraband and illegal activities.
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. There are other encryption tools and browsers, such as I2P. They are not universal by design; users must know the exact URL in order to access the site. There are no search engines or "Googling" for the Dark Web because that kind of indexing would provide a breadcrumb trail for investigators.
Another layer of anonymity involves the way payments are processed. Silk Road, for example, only accepted payment via Bitcoin, which is an unregulated cryptocurrency. As with the Dark Web generally, there is nothing illegal about using Bitcoin. But the anonymity of some cryptocurrency payments is attractive to those making illegal transactions.
Darknet, Dark Web, and Deep Web: What's the Difference?
The internet is often visualized as an iceberg. The easily visible part is called the surface web. Ordinary users can surf this 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 largest part of the internet is called the "Deep Web." This term refers to parts of the web that can't be found by search engines.
The Deep Web is 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 includes the behind-the-scenes business of the web, like:
- Payment transmissions
- Email routing
- Webpages that are not worth being indexed by search engines
- Content management systems used by website operators to upload and manage content
Part of the Deep Web is the darknet, a network overlaid on the web. The darknet is made up of nodes of peer-to-peer (or friend-to-friend) networks and privacy networks. Peer-to-peer networks are where raw data for scientific research is stored and shared among scientists, for example.
Privacy networks form the Dark Web. This is where encryption from Tor, I2P, Freenet, and DN42 are used. This is where the anonymity of a Tor network enables black markets, drug deals, and cyberattacks.
Examples of Dark Web Crimes
Any type of crime with covert transactions, whether it involves drugs, money, or even human beings, can be committed on the Dark Web. The darkest corners of the internet are a platform for myriad offenses. 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 to catch criminals is by going undercover online. Online presence overlaps with real life when law enforcement posing as sellers obtain the buyer's mailing address.
The target of an investigation may slip up and reveal personally identifying information. That mistake allowed U.S. government takedown of Rich Ulbricht. An Internal Revenue Service investigator found an incriminating comment along with his email address. This information eventually led to his arrest.
Shipping procedures provide investigators with valuable information because many of the transactions on the Dark Web markets are completed by the U.S. Postal Service. Law enforcement agencies are able to 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 focused on tracking 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, investigation and prosecution of Dark Web crimes remain a game of cat-and-mouse 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, who understands both the law and the technology, can provide a strong defense. Get legal help by contacting a skilled criminal defense attorney near you.