There are sites on the Internet where any type of drug or weapon can be purchased and the transactions are conducted with digital currencies which are almost impossible to trace.
Credit card and bank account data, counterfeit currencies, medical records, and every type of forged document are for sale. Assassins, hackers, and other services are also available for hire.
Human trafficking and child pornography can be found there, along with tutorials for committing any type of crime.
I call these hidden networks darknets.
Most people don’t even know they exist.
When I give talks and show demonstrations of these sites, most people are shocked, and can’t believe that governments and law enforcement agencies allow them to exist.
Are they real or fake?
If you’re an investigator, how much do you know about these darknets?
I think you should know enough about these networks to understand why people use them and what the current and future implications might be for investigators.
Why People Use Darknets
If people want to make it harder for law enforcement or government intelligence agencies to find them, there are lots of technology tools and techniques to help those people to hide.
We’ll be talking about some of them in future posts.
You may have seen publications, or heard officials from governments or law enforcement agencies say that every person who uses these darknets is a crook or terrorist.
There have been some court rulings in the United States saying that anyone who uses these networks or other “anonymizing” technologies like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) should automatically be suspect.
But there can be legitimate uses for darknets, and anyone who says that every use is for either criminal or terrorist purposes is wrong.
As investigators, we need to keep these darknets in a proper perspective, yet understand why they exist and how they work.
Today an increasing number of law-abiding people are using these networks to find a way to communicate securely and to better protect their privacy.
I think many of you would agree that governments and private companies have become unreasonable in the amount of data that they are collecting about all of us.
Add to these fears the growing number of data breaches where organizations collecting personal data fail to secure it. Government agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service and the Office of Personnel Management, have been hacked and the confidential data they should have protected was stolen.
The security of major companies, financial institutions, credit reporting agencies, and healthcare providers has been breached far too many times.
Identity theft and now medical identity theft continue to grow and claim more victims every year.
One of the most widely used darknets, the Onion Router network (TOR), was originally designed to protect the identity and location of people who lived in oppressed countries. There was (and still is) a need for people to be able to communicate with the outside world and receive uncensored information without putting themselves at risk.
There’s also a need for undercover intelligence agents and law enforcement to have this capability. Many people believe that the U.S. government itself uses the TOR network to provide secure access to confidential information. Given the many data breaches of traditional government networks, this might be true. It might also explain why the government continues to partially fund TOR and allow it to exist.
Our growing use of technology raises serious questions about personal privacy and security risks compared to the need for accurate intelligence for national security and law enforcement.
Does the use of these darknets by criminals and terrorist outweigh the need for privacy and security?
The fear of terrorism has been used by governments to justify programs that continue to enable widespread surveillance, with little transparency.
We don’t have good solutions to these problems.
This is our new reality, and it has driven more people to use the darknets, encrypted email services, and confidential messaging apps. They hope to recover some of their personal privacy, and to reduce the mind-boggling volume of data that tracks their activities.
Is there criminal activity happening on these darknets?
But every person who uses this technology is not a criminal or terrorist.
What Will It Mean for You?
There are people working on newer types of networks that are even more anonymous, along with new untraceable types of digital currencies.
If the crooks can use these technologies to make an investigation take more time or increase costs, they can shift the odds in their favor.
The use of darknets and other technologies will make our job even more difficult. Do you know how someone can use the darknets to hide? How do darknets work?
I believe that the Internet is evolving, and we may see even more networks that are more sophisticated than the Internet of today. They will be more secure, anonymous, and untraceable.
Currently, we don’t have enough cyber security professionals or cybercrime investigators to fill the demand. We’ll need to change this dramatically to face the challenges of the coming years.
Can our existing models of government, law enforcement, and security succeed in this environment? We don’t seem to be doing a great job right now, and the threats of techno-crimes are only going to grow.
Investigators need to understand how the current darknets work, and how they will change in the future.
Our next post will give you more information about the basics of several current darknets, and the trends I predict for the future.