Overview

The internet is divided into three categories. First, there is the surface web, which is anything accessible through a search engine like Google.[1] Following the surface web, there is the deep web that comprises most of the internet that people can access, but these webpages do not show up in general search results.[2] Your personal email, for example, is considered part of the deep web as you need a password and certain credentials in order to see the content of the page. Finally, there is the dark web.

The dark web, in and of itself, is not malicious, the term itself broadly refers to the hidden part of the internet. In order to access this part of the internet, individuals need to have a special browser, known as the onion router (Tor).[3] The United States Naval Research Lab created Tor in the mid-1990s as a way of encrypting government communication.[4]  Tor is similar to a Virtual Private Network, in the sense that it grants the user anonymity and prevents the user from being tracked and watched by third parties.[5] The general public can download Tor for personal use. For example, there are dissidents around the world who use Tor as a way of sharing sensitive information without putting themselves in danger.[6] However, unlike a VPN, Tor allows the user to access the dark web.

The dark web hosts tens of thousands of unique URLs, each ending with “.onion”. These sites vary in content, encompassing everything from chat rooms to marketplaces, and while they are not inherently illegal, they may host illegal content.[7] Additionally, most of the transactions conducted on the dark web use different forms of cryptocurrencies.

Cryptocurrencies are a growing security threat, extending far beyond their use as currency in darknet markets. In theory, anyone can create their own cryptocurrency, they just need to build legitimacy through users to function as currency. There are a variety of different forms of cryptocurrencies which correspond to different markets. For example, Dogecoin, based off an internet meme of a Shibu Inu dog and started as a joke but turned into an actual form of currency.[8]  There is also Titcoin, a cryptocurrency used in the buying and selling of pornographic material—it was created as something to accompany mainstream cryptocurrencies like BitCoin, and to avoid linking purchases to the user’s  main cryptocurrency account.[9]

Darknet Markets

In 2011, an American man named Ross Ulbricht created the Silk Road, one of the first darknet marketplaces. Marketplaces are a hallmark of the darknet ecosystem. These marketplaces exist for individuals to anonymously buy and sell illicit goods. While drugs account for the majority of what is sold online, these markets sell other forms of illicit goods, such as hacking equipment and tutorials, as well as personal data, counterfeit documents, and firearms[10]. Like with the rest of the dark web, anyone can access these marketplaces. Transactions are typically conducted through cryptocurrencies, most notably BitCoin. These ‘Darknet Markets’ make it easier for individuals to access illicit goods and avoid prosecution, due to the anonymity of the dark web.

Darknet markets are incredibly lucrative. The Silk Road operated for around two years and made profit through commission, charging a small fee for all of the transactions taking place on the site; it had an estimated cash flow of $213 million at the time of its closure in 2013.[11] Since the site was shut down, darknet marketplaces have only gotten more lucrative. Multiple other marketplaces have sprung up following the success of the Silk Road. Some of these marketplaces have ended up being scams, were hacked, or were otherwise shut down by international authorities.[12] Yet, these markets keep appearing and growing. Take, for instance, AlphaBay, a popular darknet market that was estimated to have made around $1 billion in sales in the three years it was online.[13]

While drugs make up a large portion of the material sold on the dark web, they are far from the only illicit material sold online. The dark web has made it easier to buy and sell weapons online by allowing users to evade potential background checks[14], and to pay lower prices than legal weapons.[15] In addition to weapons and ammunition, sellers may also sell instructions for how individuals can construct weapons using 3D printers and other machines individuals can buy and use legally.[16] The lack of background checks is particularly concerning considering how lone-wolf terrorists, such as the 2016 Munich shooter, have bought weapons on the dark web in order to carry out acts of terrorism[17]. Although it is difficult to find accurate statistics due to the anonymity of the dark web, the majority of guns sold on the dark web appear to be made in the United States[18].

Sexually explicit material, especially involving children, is also rampant on the dark web, and on the internet as a whole. This type of material disproportionately impacts women and girls.  The increase in the availability of technology has corresponded with the growth of the illicit markets, as it increases access to these sites[19].

The market for child pornography in particular is very lucrative and has caused webcam child sex tourism (WCST) in various forms to grow[20]. There are websites like “DarkScandals,” now shut down, allowed users to buy and download violent and exploitative material of children either by utilizing cryptocurrency, or by uploading videos in return for access to the site’s content[21]. WCST also includes webcam shows, some of which include predators paying to direct individuals to engage in specific sexual acts[22].

The exploitation of individuals is not a recent phenomenon nor is it the product of technological advancements. However, the spread and advancement of technology has allowed exploitation to increase by making it easier to connect buyers and sellers of exploitative material. Additionally, because the darknet operates using Tor, it has become easier for individuals to hide their identities and evade capture.

While the dark web hosts much illegal content, illegal material can be found all over the internet  as well. While popular apps like TikTok do not host explicit content, some of its content has been uploaded to pornographic websites. These videos are of predominantly young girls dancing to explicit songs[23].  While these websites have removed the videos and reiterated content guidelines, users are still posting these videos[24]. TikTok has also come under fire due to the high levels of grooming and harassment on the app. TikTok has a livestem feature and many users, predominantly young girls, report that they have been asked to take off their clothing or otherwise harassed while livestreaming content[25].  Users all report high levels of online harassment, some of which is sexually charged, and other which is racially or religiously motivated[26].

Law Enforcement and Darknet Markets

Darknet marketplaces are still incredibly prominent and lucrative, and although authorities seize these sites and the marketplaces are disrupted, at some point normalcy returns. When US authorities seized the Silk Road in 2013, the Silk Road 2.0 emerged to succeed it. When AlphaBay was shut down, users flocked to Hansa. Darknet markets are built one on top of the other, leaving law enforcement playing a constant game of cat and mouse.

Artificial intelligence has revolutionized law enforcement’s attempts to capture individuals involved in the buying and selling of child pornography. Terre des hommes, a Dutch NGO, used AI software to create virtual children. While virtual, the child looks hyper-realistic and has been deployed in online chatrooms to find pedophiles[27]. The AI software allows law enforcement to create sting operations without the use of actual children.

The involvement of cryptocurrency has also aided law enforcement. The DOJ reported that BitCoin funded the largest child pornography site on the dark web, “Welcome to Video”, which hosted over 250,000 videos[28]. Investigators were able to utilize blockchain technology in order to find the creator of the site and ultimately shut down the site[29]. A similar tactics was used take down another child pornography site called “DarkScandals”[30].

However,  darknet markets have proved to be incredibly lucrative, which in turn has revolutionized cryptocurrencies. While marketplaces like the Silk Road initially conducted transactions solely through BitCoin, the growth of these marketplaces has prompted the growth of other and more private cryptocurrencies. AlphaBay is a notable example for its acceptance of the cryptocurrency Monero. Monero had the reputation for being a more secretive cryptocurrency, allowing users to conduct transactions without it being linked back to them[31]. Monero’s stealth made it the preferred cryptocurrency for markets. When AlphaBay began accepting Monero, the value of the currency increased to around six times its previous worth[32].

Criminals use cryptocurrencies to aid in money laundering and some have begun to demand payment in different cryptocurrencies during ransomware attacks[33].  The rise of cryptocurrency has also paved another avenue for non-state actors to raise funds. The United States Department of Justice reported that terrorist groups have begun using the dark web and cryptocurrencies as an avenue for fundraising.

COVID-19 and Darknet Markets

The COVID-19 Pandemic is only making these marketplaces more profitable. Lockdowns around the world have encouraged higher levels of drug use, and e-commerce has emerged as the preferred way of buying various drugs. In the United Kingdom, online drug vendors estimate that their market grew 25% during the three-month lockdown[34]. Darknet markets have also profited off the widespread fear during the global pandemic. Where traditionally these markets sell drugs and other illicit goods, in the early days of the pandemic, individuals flocked online to buy personal protective equipment, the blood of recovered COVID patients, and drugs marketed as potential vaccines.[35]

Furthermore, the DOJ has evidence to suggest that terrorist organizations are taking advantage of current events to fund their endeavors. Earlier in 2020, individuals associated with ISIS were caught selling personal protective equipment such as N95 respirator masks. The funds collected from these sales went to support ISIS operations.[36]

Questions for Critical Thinking

  1. Sometimes shutting down platforms creates opportunities for others to take their place in worse ways than before. How can law enforcement manage this?
  2. How does the protection of individual privacy overlap with the prosecution of crime on the darknet?
  3. What do you think will happen to the darknet post COVID-19?
  4. What do you think of BitCoin? Will it replace current mainstream currency?
  5. What is a gendered perspective on the dark web and darknet?

Gender Component

Gender is a key dimension of the dark web, however, there seem to be competing narratives regarding gender perspectives and gender parity on the dark web. For example, while there are ample opportunities for women to achieve gender parity in a number of areas (such as buying/selling/managing products or sharing resources/skills on navigating the dark web), there is little to no understanding of what it means to have a gendered perspective while looking at the dark web. Additionally, the activities carried out on the dark web could benefit from an analysis and understanding that comes with a gendered perspective (i.e. examining the illegal trade of humans or the sharing of ideas or power). Further, although the dark web and its legitimate and illegitimate platforms[1], especially social media platforms, can provide a certain anonymity to users, thus preventing individuals from knowing what gender or race, socioeconomic status, physical location, etc. a user is, there are truly no fail proofs and physical security and an individual’s background, gender, race, etc., will typically come to light one way or another.[2]

However, one thing remains clear, women’s physical and virtual security is more threatened than men or other people’s physical and virtual security in various situations on the dark web, specifically regarding human and sex trafficking, escort services, even business ventures.[3] Additionally, while law enforcement does take down illegal sites, it often can be more difficult.

While cryptocurrencies are relatively gender neutral on paper (some top executives in this realm are women)[4], the use of the currencies tells another story. It is well known that cryptocurrencies can fuel broader illicit activities on the dark web and the darknet markets. However, the impact that cryptocurrency can have on physical security through illegal sex trafficking or other similar acts is magnified for women.[5]

Finally, in addition to sex trafficking and physical and virtual threats to women’s security, the spread of ideas and hate towards women or other groups is alive and well on the dark web. Unfortunately, the spread of these ideas can result in brutal acts of terrorism, violence, or hate acts. Groups such as incels[6] which promote ideas of dominance over women and promote a balance of power disproportionately impacting women and others’ lives are key examples of this type of threat from the dark web.

Keywords

AlphaBay and Hansa Takedown: In July 2017, the marketplace AlphaBay went offline. The site's users did not know why and after a week without updates, many decided to conduct business elsewhere and fled to another successful market, Hansa. At the time, users were not aware that international authorities had seized Hansa and were using Hansa as a honeypot to gather as much information as possible. This single operation took down two of the largest darknet marketplaces at the time.

BitCoin: BitCoin is a cryptocurrency created in 2009. Individuals can either buy or “mine” BitCoins. The processing of mining involves solving mathematical problems. BitCoin is stored in a digital wallet, or a type of virtual banking system. BitCoin is an anonymous system as it only shows the identification for these digital wallets and not any user data.

Cryptocurrency: “any form of currency that only exists digitally, that usually has no central issuing or regulating authority but instead uses a decentralized system to record transactions and manage the issuance of new units, and that relies on cryptography to prevent counterfeiting and fraudulent transactions”

Dark Web: The dark web is the smallest part of the internet. The dark web is "hidden" from normal search engines and is only accessible through using a Tor, or an anonymous browsing aid which hides the users IP address. The dark web is encrypted and allows users to browse anonymously. Sites on the dark web are not searchable. In order to access these sites, the user needs to know the destination URL. Because the dark web is anonymous, it has become a hub for illegal activity including drug and arms trafficking

Darknet Marketplaces: The anonymity of the darknet has meant that criminal activity can thrive. While the darknet is not inherently illegal, it does host quite a lot of illegal activity, such as marketplaces. These marketplaces allow individuals to buy and sell all sorts of illicit goods, including drugs, firearms, hacking tools, and more. The transactions on these darknet marketplaces use cryptocurrencies which grants individuals engaged in this process more anonymity.

Deep Web: The deep web makes up the largest part of the internet and includes all sites that are not accessible through search engines. The deep web includes things like password protected email accounts. The deep web contains a majority of harmless/benign sites.

Monero: Monero is a type of cryptocurrency. Monero markets itself as being a more private and confidential form of conducting transactions online. AlphaBay, a prominent darknet marketplace, began accepting the currency in 2016 causing monero’s value to increase. Unlike other cryptocurrencies like BitCoin, Monero promises the user total anonymity, making it ideal to conduct illegal transactions.

Silk Road:  The Silk Road is one of the first and most notorious examples of drug and weapons trafficking on the dark web. Drugs of all kinds, everything from prescription pills to heroin, were sold on this site and as the site grew, weapons, including firearms and grenades, and counterfeit documents were also sold on this site. The US Federal Bureau of investigation seized the site in 2013. What made the Silk Road so unique was that it was one of the first and most successful marketplaces and revolutionized the commercial drug trade. Like with any legal marketplace, if a seller sold a bad product the site would then remove the seller and otherwise take action to ensure that bad products are not being sold on the site. The Silk Road was also incredibly lucrative and had around $1.2B in revenue at the time it was shut down.

Surface Web: This is the part of the web that is easily accessible and includes sites like Google and Bing and is accessible through mainstream search engines. "surface web" makes up the smallest percentage of sites.

The Armory: The armory was an offshoot of The Silk Road dedicated exclusively to the buying and selling of weapons. The site was shut down due to low transactions.

Webcam Child Sex Tourism: “Webcam Child Sex Tourism, also known as WCST, is when adults pay to direct and view live-streaming video footage of children in another country performing sexual acts in front of a webcam.”