On the 17th of May, we organized a Masterclass on the Dark Web. During this masterclass, we learned a lot about the working of the hidden internet. First among others, the deep and dark web are different things. The former is a part that is not found on search engines. The latter a very small subset of the deep web (hidden internationally). Additionally, access through standard web browsers is impossible as it is comprised of individual networks (darknets).
The access to the dark web is through different layers of encryption. You pass hubs and each hub has a key to open one layer of encryption. This is called Onion Routing. Something which is more commonly known is the Tor Network, which uses this type of routing. It is being used by different actors to embed themselves into a cloud of protection. ProPublica, the online investigative journalism platform that won a Pulitzer Prize, uses this kind of protection to hide, for example, their sources.
However, hidden services make use of this network. Such examples are online markets that sell, next to legal, illegal products. Silk Road is a famous example. It got shut down because of the illegal substances that were being sold.
As you might suggest, it is difficult for law enforcement to enter these hidden networks. But, there are ways. Almost always through human errors. When the dark net community scrambled after Alphabay (the then-largest online market) got taken down a significant migration took place to Hansa. Hansa saw its users multiply by 8. Unfortunately for the users, Interpol had seized Hansa for a month, but kept it running to extract information. As such, all those who migrated gave away their personal info to Interpol as it found a way to deanonymize users who made a transaction on Hansa.
Decentralization has three major benefits: (1) fault tolerance, (2) attack resistance, and (3) collusion resistance. The first basically means that when a server goes down, another server stays up. The second captures the high costs of attacking such online markets and dark-web websites. Lastly, the third point is about the difficulty of trying to manipulate, for example, an online market place.
Thus, the law enforcement aims at finding mistakes that they can exploit. Alphabay got taken down thanks to an identified error in the opening message. Furthermore, law enforcement also tries to scare users away by revealing information, like the Dutch police does. Nevertheless, it remains difficult for law enforcements to even seem to being successful. This is mainly because the owners of Alphabay and Silk Road, for example, had only three people running the whole business. Finally, it is not always the police who takes down website. Infrastructural errors and mistakes, but also rivalry is a source of taking websites down on the dark web.
I hope you enjoyed this piece and you are always very welcome to join our future masterclasses as well!