For the initiated, the dark web is the vast expanse of the internet which can't be access by conventional search engines such as Google and Yahoo. It's many times bigger than the surface-level internet (the one 99% of users use) and the websites it comprises operate on an encrypted network.
Although it provides a vital service for people who face repression and persecution from intelligence agencies in their own countries, it is also a sanctuary for criminals who are trying to stay anonymous and one step ahead of the law. The anonymity offered by the murky depths of the internet provide a refuge for terrorists and extremists, who can hatch their evil plots well away from prying eyes.
Most extreme and violent criminals, it must be said, are not internet-savvy. Yet they employ sophisticated hackers who create step-by-step instructions on how to evade detection, hide in plain sight and bury themselves in some deep crevices of the dark web. As technology continues to bound forward, collaboration has never been easier below the surface-level internet. Nor has the sale of supplies for terror groups.
As well as helping terrorists arm themselves for physical attacks, the dark web, naturally, facilitates cyber-warfare. Hackers create manuals that are adaptable to any skill level, in different languages, along with written or video tutorials on anonymity and supporting technologies. These dumbed-down instructions are available on the dark web markets and are also printed and distributed physically amongst terrorists.
All this presents a challenge to law enforcement around the globe while they attempt to stay ahead of the terrorists. On the dark web, how do you find those who do not want to be found? It takes technology, it takes patience, and it takes a lot of strategy to get inside the ploys that may endanger many innocent lives.
Accessing the terrorists and other radical virtual homes on the dark web is no easy task. They are not in search engines, and they operate under such obscure names and locations that it is nearly impossible to identify without any leads. While intelligence operatives may be able to get on the ground floor of the terrorist communications, there is often a hierarchical structure to the dark web presence with dissimilar access levels, sites, and contents - which significantly complicates the good guys’ task.
However, one of the bigger disadvantages of the dark web is that anonymity works both ways. On the Dark Web, you have an alias and your entire identity hinges on knowing how to connect to the right site with the correct username and passwords. There is rarely a second layer of verification of your identity; after all, it is not like terrorists will opt for an SMS message to verify their access to a site. Some accounts can be exploited because even the most hardened criminals reuse passwords.
Then there are other investigative steps which can be taken. Certain information can be obtained from the dark web sites which are far from perfectly secured. While private networks like Tor protect site location and configuration, any mistake made by site administrators may leak additional information, which may lead to the identification of the locale of the site.
In the past few years the authorities have started to get a grip on the dark web. Many sites trafficking weapons, intelligence, and even people have been taken down by law enforcement agencies. Through technical vulnerabilities and investigative work numerous sites running “crowdfunding” for assassinations, counterfeit currencies or documents, drugs, and other dangerous goods are no longer online. Some of their creators are standing in front of judges and are getting harsh jail sentences for facilitating or using these types of services.
Investigators are so skilled in the creation and adoption of guises that, at times, they are indistinguishable from the bad guys. This creates distrust amongst the radicals, as they are no longer able to distinguish between the real bad guys and the fakes – after all, everyone is anonymous.
Yet still the dark web thrives. Better anonymization of blockchains, anonymous services for email, web browsing, and communication faithfully serve those who do not wish to be found. Technology today is still ahead of many law enforcement agencies, which need to build better countermeasure technologies or alternative ways to investigate and infiltrate the dark web.
So what’s the next step? Do we continue to develop technology that enables terrorists to stay anonymous, or do we require backdoor access into all the systems? It sounds like a simple answer, but given the need to retain people’s right to privacy, it’s actually a fiendishly complicated one.
For now, rather than cutting off people’s liberty, authorities are using piecemeal advances in technology, along with deductive and investigative skills. The authorities hope this will continue to open the hidden doors of the dark web, while exposing terrorists and extremists and thwarting radical ploys against the innocent.
Alex Holden is founder of Hold Security, a US-based cyber-security firm. He is also a regular media commentator.
You can find out more about his company on their website or by following them on Twitter @HoldSecurity.