UN warns police are not up to targeting dark web superstores

Not a place you want to go shopping, the 'anonymous online marketplace' was meant to protect civil liberties but is now better known as a nefarious network for the illicit drugs trade.

The dark web is hidden beneath layers of the Onion Router (Tor)
The dark web is hidden beneath layers of the Onion Router (Tor)

The United Nation's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has published its annual report and this year made particular note of the issues thrown up by the illicit trade of goods and drugs on the so-called dark web.

The UN has gone to pains to tell us that many countries' law enforcement agencies are simply not dealing with the trade networks that have grown across the mostly uncharted expanse of the dark web.

With users at both the buyer and seller level obfuscating their locations using Tor, the anonymous online marketplace has proliferated and grown. Heavily aligned to the issue of drugs trade across the dark web, the UN report is similar to a 2014 Europol report that called on law enforcement agencies to build capability in the area of darknet investigations.

Although the FBI has been lauded for its efforts in the fight against the dark web and its trading pathways, simply identifying the location of users is not usually enough. The reason being that even with a user location enforcement agencies have trouble pinning down the national sovereignty of the device location, ie where data sovereignty exists for each and every virtual user profile.

SCMagazineUK.com spoke to Giovanni Vigna, CTO and co-founder at Lastline, who said that, initially, the dark web, together with Tor, was created by privacy-conscious people whose goal was to create an environment for the free and anonymous exchange of information.

“As often happens, cyber-criminals soon understood that the same privacy-preserving technologies could be used to carry out illicit activities. As a result, a system born to protect users' rights has now become pathologically marred by criminal activities of all kind,” said Vigna.

Troy Gill, manager of security research at AppRiver, told SC that the level of anonymity provided on the dark web allows providers and the consumers of these products and services to operate with a much greater confidence level than would otherwise be the case on the Internet.

“Knowing the drastic lengths that law enforcement must often go to in order to identify these people makes it such a fertile grounds for these sorts of activities,” he said.

He said the encryption and randomisation that the dark web utilises makes it exponentially difficult for law enforcement to locate the actual perpetrators.

“While it is not impossible to bring both providers and consumers to justice, it is still the safest alternative to mass distribution of illicit products and services. I imagine authorities will naturally focus efforts on the sites they perceive to be causing the most harm," said Gill.

Jonathan Sander, VP of product strategy at Lieberman Software, said dark web players like ‘The Real Deal' underground are successful due to a strange brew of assumed anonymity, misplaced trust and overconfidence in technology.

“When someone who has grown up in the Internet age pictures buying drugs on a street corner they feel much more exposed than if they are clicking around the dark web. They feel as if clicks on a website are somehow much more anonymous than a transaction on a street corner, when the reverse is likely true even on the darkest parts of the web,” he said.

Sander said that this whole predicament tells a story. “Growing up in the city, it was common to see men selling counterfeit designer goods and a lot worse on the streets. They were ready to run the second anything that looked like a cop walked by, even ready to abandon their goods to make the getaway. I have to imagine dark web vendors are much the same way. Most of these bad guys are likely nervously looking around all the time, ready to run away the minute they think anyone may be there to bust them but few seem to be caught.”


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