Technology & Trade

A Choke-point Strategy on the Dark Web

in Program

By Levi Maxey: 

Did you know that when you “google” something you only access a fraction of the World Wide Web? Indeed, commercial search engines only scratch the surface, about 5 percent, of the web. The rest of the virtual world, called the deep web, is largely inaccessible to the average Joe and consists of databases, emails, social media and chat forums. Even further into the depths of the web is a separate space called the dark web, which can only be accessed through encrypted browsers that preserve the users’ anonymity. Here, beyond the reach of the traditional law enforcement community, transnational organized criminals trade in anything from humans, narcotics, arms, and counterfeit goods, and facilitate marketplaces for child pornography, money laundering, assassins-for-hire, and hacker toolkits.

The availability of cyber black markets creates a convenient platform for rogue individuals and criminal organizations around the world to buy and sell illicit products with impunity. It also creates the potential for the proliferation of global trafficking networks that often fund extremism. Recently, however, some  innovative technologies are emerging that allow law enforcement officials to explore and monitor cyber black markets and give reason for hope in the fight against cyber trafficking.

In 2013, the FBI forcefully took control of the Freedom Hosting service which held over 100 child pornography sites with thousands of users, leading to the arrest of its founder Eric Marques, and eventually the seizure of other suspected sites. Similarly, the FBI arrested Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the illicit vendor site Silk Road, on charges of selling narcotics, computer hacking, and money laundering. The Silk Road enabled over 100,000 people to buy and sell illegal drugs anonymously while laundering over $100 million in transactions across 10 countries. At the time of arrest, the site hosted over 13,000 listings for drugs of all kinds, 159 listings for hacking services, and 801 listings for other illicit digital goods. While these are specific examples relating to transnational organized crime, the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundariesinitiative has extensively explored the corrosive effects of illicit networks on international peace and security.

The problem with these cases is that the individuals arrested are replaceable and, with plenty of other black market sites to turn to, their removal is but a minor setback for the actual criminal enterprises involved. Rather than continue this “whack-a-mole” approach, successful strategies to target cyber black markets need to use a choke-point approach. For example, many cyber black market purchases use bitcoins (BTC), a virtual currency that keeps transacting parties anonymous through online wallets. However, each wallet has an attached public transaction ledger, called the blockchain. Access to the blockchain actually makes tracing laundered money relatively straightforward; all that’s missing are end user details. By aggregating details like this from online interactions, law enforcement can trace supply chains, times of exchanges, amounts per exchange, and other critical information in any law enforcement investigation. Instead of relying on tracking down a facilitator, which as seen above only briefly interrupts these vast trading networks, law enforcement can use the data available to chart networks and identify intervention choke points that could efficiently cripple entire enterprises.

One such initiative has started to do just that. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under the U.S. Department of Defense has embarked on a partnership with private software developers to create data analytic tools that can trace activity in the dark web. This program, called Memex, will be part of their broader initiative to track illicit activity. Memex works to address deficiencies in current search engines to improve tracking, monitoring and storage capabilities necessary in catching illicit users, while remaining wary of invading the individual anonymity of users due to general emerging privacy concerns and the legitimate use of anonymity tools in political activism and journalism.

The fight against human trafficking is a good example of the kinds of capabilities Memex can bring to the table in countering illicit trafficking. Escort advertisement pages are temporarily displayed to an audience in specific geographic locations only, giving a large clue to law enforcement officials as to destination and perhaps source areas in the trade. Memex is able to collect these advertisements, map out the data by volume according to location and timeframe, and connect the networks internationally through shared characteristics like titles, emails, phone numbers, vernacular and even photograph features such as background furniture. With this information on the overlapping structures and geographical concentrations of criminal groups, law enforcement will be better able to identify and target the source, destination and even transit points in the trade.  The potential Memex holds for documenting the online activity of international illicit networks could be instrumental in destabilizing all forms of transnational organized crime by tracking their presence online.

As the use of the internet has vastly facilitated legal commerce, it has also done the same for criminal enterprise. Non-invasive data analytic tools such as Memex can be used to supplement law enforcement in mapping out illicit organizations. Ultimately, tools like Memex provide a nuanced response to criminal enterprises turning to the convenience of cyber black markets by allowing law enforcement to better understand transnational criminal networks and their vulnerable choke points.

Follow Stimson’s Managing Across Boundaries initiative and Stimson on Twitter.

Photo credit: dustball via flickr

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