The dark web is being used for criminal activity - and this is how police and the National Crime Agency are tackling it

Criminals are using the dark web for illicit activities. Picture by PA.
Criminals are using the dark web for illicit activities. Picture by PA.
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The dark web is being used by criminals for illicit activity. Recent court cases make it clear offenders can be identified, but Laura Drysdale explores the challenges of tackling the crime.

Today’s technology has given crime an additional face - and one that is largely invisible. Criminals are carrying out serious and dangerous offences using the dark web, in the hope of evading capture.

Emlyn Butterfield of Leeds Beckett University. Picture supplied by the university, copyright Justin Slee.

Emlyn Butterfield of Leeds Beckett University. Picture supplied by the university, copyright Justin Slee.

One of three areas of the World Wide Web, it can only be reached through specialist anonymising browsers and though it is not used solely for illegitimate activity, this veil of secrecy presents opportunities for a criminal underworld.

Drugs dealers are selling their wares through the illicit marketplaces in operation there, where financial details, hacking software and violent weapons including grenades are also listed as being available to purchase. And police have warned that paedophiles too are using the dark web’s hidden websites when accessing and sharing indecent images of children, to try to cover their tracks.

Paedophiles in West Yorkshire increasingly using 'dark web' to view indecent images, detectives warn
To find those responsible, law enforcement organisations across the globe are having to think - and operate - differently. But Vince O’Brien, of the National Crime Agency (NCA), says recent examples of prosecutions, including in Yorkshire, are evidence that criminals can and will be identified.

“People operating on the dark web are not beyond the reach of law enforcement,” he says. “Even though criminality is enabled by technology, ultimately [with illegal marketplaces], there’s a physical commodity moving and someone has had something delivered to an address. Although people are anonymous by technology, there are opportunities for us to deal with that.”

Prosecutions

Just last month, Leeds Crown Court heard how the dark web was used in the importing of one of the most addictive drugs in the world, as four members of a Leeds organised crime group were jailed for a total of more than 31 years.

The hearing was told the gang created a market for crystal meth in the region, with its leader using the dark web and his contacts to order and import the drug, paying in crypto currency to “preserve secrecy”.

Leeds drug dealing gang who created market for crystal meth in Yorkshire are jailed for more than 31 years
That hearing came just three months after the jailing of three men who ran a dark web business out of an industrial unit in Morley, selling potentially deadly drugs around the globe.

The trio, who were sentenced to prison for a total of 43 -and-a-half-years, sold the powerful opioid fentanyl, which is up to 100 times stronger than morphine over the dark web, under the business name ‘UKBargins’.

NCA investigators identified that six British people from their customer list had died from issues related to fentanyl consumption, though it cannot be said with certainty that the drug they took was supplied by the gang.

Three men who ran dark web site from Leeds selling deadly Fentanyl drug worldwide get 43 years jail
“We are particularly concerned about things like fentanyl because that’s an area where we have seen sales taking place,” explains O'Brien, whose team have been involved in operations in Yorkshire.

Accessibility

Another worry is around people accessing the dark web for legitimate, legal purposes - people use it for whistleblowing and to communicate anonymously, particularly in repressed regimes where there are human rights issues - or “relatively low harm” activity, and being exposed to extremist material or high levels of criminality.

“It’s a very different kind of criminality in terms of who can become involved and who can access it,” O'Brien says. “It presents a very low barrier to enter both in terms of obtaining criminal services or becoming involved in supplying those services.”

Though O'Brien’s work focuses on drugs and firearms matters in particular, the sharing of indecent images of children on the dark web is another significant threat. “Offenders are able to access images and can become encouraged in their behaviour which may lead to people offending in real life,” he says.

With the dark web, people can sit and share “thousands and millions” of images “which makes it more accessible,” Emlyn Butterfield, a lecturer in Computer Forensics and Security at Leeds Beckett University, agrees. “And because it’s more accessible, people might be more willing to access that with a bit of interest.”

“We talk about the web and how it allows us to connect to people across the world which sounds like a great thing,” he adds. “But actually that can mean there’s a lot of depraved people sharing information now who didn’t used to be able to connect.”

Challenges

Anonymity, or “perceived anonymity”, makes tackling crime on the dark web more challenging, says Butterfield, who has eight years of experience working as a digital forensic analyst and expert witness on cases involving anything from terrorism to murder, computer misuse and indecent images of children. But it is by no means impossible.

“The dark web needs its own special browser. Google can’t touch the sites and because it can’t touch those kind of sites, it’s a lot harder to find information about what’s going on. The dark web is massive.”

But, whilst it presents a different context for traditional techniques, he says the police and cyber industry have the skillset and technology to find those responsible for illegal activity.

There are people that monitor the dark web to flag up anything that appears like it may be criminal, he explains, and from there, they will begin to build packages of intelligence, inferring information from the likes of usage patterns, bitcoin logs and transactions, and usernames.

The use of ‘honeypots’ is another tactic. “Police might set up a website on the dark web, people sign up and start selling things or having conversations about things, or try and buy goods from the police officers themselves who are pretending to be criminals.

“At that point, they can back track it to a physical address because something needs to happen - some money needs to be exchanged, some details need to be exchanged and therefore they can try to identify the person at that point. If you leave that running long enough, those sites can capture lots and lots of people and can be a good way of doing that.”

But the international scale of the dark web can be a challenge. “The difficulty is you don’t know where people are,” says Butterfield. “Because people are using various different systems to keep themselves relatively anonymous, you don’t know what country they exist in. And because you don’t know what country they exist in, then you don’t know what door to knock on or who to talk to first.”

It is why capabilities to tackle cyber crime are held both regionally and nationally as well as internationally. “That cross boundary work just in the UK never mind abroad is a real change in tactics,” Butterfield says. “With the joint up thinking now that’s occurring across regions and across countries, that is making identifying and prosecuting people more achievable.”

Government funding

The Government says it has invested more than £150m since 2015 in the law enforcement response to cyber crime. It launched a new five year cyber security strategy the following year.

Security Minister Ben Wallace told The Yorkshire Post: “The cyber threats we face continue to grow in scale and sophistication.

“This is why the National Cyber Security Strategy 2016-2021 is supported by £1.9bn of transformational investment, including for tackling cyber crime.

“In 2018-19 we are investing over £50m which will build law enforcement cyber capabilities and tackle organised crime online in methods such as a new crackdown on the dark web and establishing dedicated cyber units in every police force in England and Wales.”