The story reads like a work of fiction, a thriller that could have been carefully crafted by a bestselling author that could evolve into an award winning series. For nearly one month in 2017, the Dutch police ran Hansa – one of the largest darknet marketplaces – impersonating its administrators in an attempt to gather as much intelligence on buyers and sellers as they could, prior to taking the market offline as a means to disrupt the criminal infrastructure. Welcome to crime fighting in the twenty-first century!
The arrival of digital technologies and the more general digitalisation of contemporary society have introduced both challenges as well as opportunities for law enforcement. Much of the focus is on the challenges, since crime fighting has become plagued by, amongst others, a loss of (access to) data as well as a loss of location. A perpetrator can commit a crime anywhere and at any time, leaving behind a trail of victims in different jurisdictions. These challenges have required law enforcement to reconsider means of investigations as well as means of intervention with respect to criminal operations. This reconsideration can, as demonstrated by the example above, lead to innovative ways of disrupting criminal operations.
Despite the existence and popularity of the concepts of the Deep Web and the Darknet during the mid-1990s, the topics only gained broader public attention after the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, also known as “Dread Pirate Roberts.” Law enforcement carried out his arrest in October 2013, after having taken down the Silk Road market. This action therefore brought the Darkweb out of its shadow and into the public spotlight, simultaneously and inadvertently also enhancing its popularity. Overall, Sui et al. (2015) describe how, “the emergence of the Deep Web in general and Darknet in particular offers a new economic, social, and political ecosystem that was designed to exist – and usually operates – beyond the reach of law, regulation, and government oversight.” As a result, the approach by law enforcement must be innovative in order to be effective.
From takedown to takeover
One of the main challenges with taking down a marketplace is the potential lack of impact on actually disrupting the criminal infrastructure. This is generally known as the whack-a-mole effect, since where one marketplace is taken down another appears in a different place, and users simply migrate to their new ‘home.’ As a result, the coordinated takedown of Hansa and AlphaBay aimed to go beyond the usual strategy by taking over one of the two marketplaces to gather intelligence and to plant a seed of distrust among users. After law enforcement authorities took down AlphaBay, many users migrated to the Hansa market which allowed the authorities to gather even more insight into the users – both vendors and buyers – of the market.
What is Next?
In many ways, the takedown of AlphaBay and Hansa was a step in the more general evolution of the approach taken against Darkweb marketplaces and activities. Developments with respect to the Darkweb call for this evolution as law enforcement across the globe is confronted by a number of similar challenges, which makes coordination and cooperation essential. This coordination and cooperation is not just about going beyond national boundaries, but must also include a comprehensive approach with respect to different crimes, since the Darkweb cuts across a number of areas – from drugs to firearms and from human trafficking to terrorism. The Darkweb has made many illicit goods and services supremely accessible and allows both buyers and vendors to comfortably wear the cloth of anonymity.
Yet, criminals remain resilient. As described by a CSIS blogpost, “…the temporary interruption of market infrastructure does not deter new players from entering these markets. Improving law enforcement’s capacity to understand dark web market dynamics will allow law enforcement entities to develop new areas of expertise, make better use of limited resources, and deter illicit activity online.” This understanding requires research, as part of a coordinated approach, through intelligence gathering and observation.
Moving forward through the introduction of a dedicated team
One of Europol’s initiatives with respect to fighting crime on the Darkweb is to create a coordinated law enforcement approach. This coordinated approach includes the participation of law enforcement agencies from across EU Member States, operational third parties as well as other partners, such as Eurojust.
To achieve this goal, Europol has established a dedicated Dark Web Team in 2018 to work together with EU partners and law enforcement globally to reduce the size of this underground illegal economy. This comprehensive approach will deliver a complete and coordinated approach.
What does this mean? This means there is a focus on sharing information, on providing operational support and expertise in different crime areas. Furthermore, such an approach includes the development of tools, tactics, and techniques to conduct dark web investigations and identify top threats and targets. Such investigations and identification shall hopefully also provide the insight into the dynamics of the different players on the darkweb and subsequently contribute to effective ways of intervention.
The team also aims to enhance joint technical and investigative actions, organise training and capacity-building initiatives, together with prevention and awareness-raising campaigns – a 360° strategy against criminality on the darkweb. The dangers on the darkweb are plentiful. A shared commitment across the global community and a coordinated approach by law enforcement agencies are essential going forward.
The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of her affiliated organisation.
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