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Untamed Territory: Why Hasn’t the Dark Web Been Banned Yet?

The Dark Web is a lifeline that delivers privacy and anonymity for communication, such as forums, chat rooms, and whistle-blowing. It offers the same benefit for crypto users and those cautious of being monitored by corporations and governments, potentially to make money from their data. As a communication tool, it supports many uses that are considered legal and legitimate.

However, cybercriminals and tyrants enjoy the same privacy and anonymity that shield them from criminal activities. Some rampant illicit activities on the Dark Web include weapons and human trafficking, drug dealing, and pornography, often involving minors. Although the growth of illegal transactions on the Dark Web, including those with Bitcoin and other privacy coins, is relatively tiny compared to global illicit trades, many of the most destructive threats to the public are widespread on these hidden sites.

A CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust revealed that 71% of Internet users are pushing for the shutdown of the Dark Web. Regulators, financial institutions, and law enforcement agencies worldwide must pay attention.

Issues and Challenges Faced by Regulators and Law Enforcement Agencies

Although many Internet users are clamoring for the shutdown of the Dark Web, a significant number of legitimate individuals are also turning toward encrypted methods of communicating online to maintain their privacy. An example is Crypto users using Bitcoin mixer like Unijoin to protect their Bitcoin transactions' privacy.

The good and the bad co-exist on the Dark Web, so shutdown operations must also consider protecting the privacy rights of the "good" or legitimate users such as journalists, whistle-blowers, academic researchers, human rights activists, and privacy advocates. The challenge of law enforcement agencies lies in devising strategies that address the fine line between legal and illegal. These strategies must balance between protecting the freedom of legitimate users and eliminating the unlawful activities of cyber criminals on the Dark Web.

Another area for improvement is the Dark Web's anonymity and structure, making it difficult for law enforcement agencies to go after illegal activities within the sites, especially those involving anonymous crypto. The dark web is a decentralized network of encrypted sites with hidden IP addresses hosted worldwide. So, it is virtually impossible to shut down the entire Dark Web, even with the combined efforts of law enforcers from different countries. Since no single person or organization controls it, you must close every site to shut down the entire network. Considering the Tor network alone, this means shutting down over 7,000 secret nodes globally. If law enforcement agencies succeed in exterminating specific portions of the Dark Web, cybercriminals will only create new websites and servers to replace those shutdowns.

Addressing the Irregularities on the Dark Web

The globalized nature of the Dark Web requires the joint forces of law enforcement agencies worldwide to police illegal activities. Interpol and the European Union saw the need to strengthen cooperation against cybercrimes and illicit trafficking through a more substantial strategic alignment of law enforcement agencies from different countries.

Information sharing is the most significant chunk of this strategic alignment and international collaboration. INTERPOL and Frontex created a global data-sharing framework through joint initiatives to reduce duplication, increase alignment, and provide the correct information to law enforcement agencies when needed. This unified system helps border officials pinpoint unlawful activities such as falsified travel and identity documents on the Dark Web.

Through this strategy and the cooperation of regulators and financial institutions, international law enforcement groups have significantly reduced illegal activities on the Dark Web. It has also boosted law enforcement's technical capabilities to shut down hidden sites doing the most nefarious activities and controlling the movement of cryptocurrency transactions.

To overcome the dark web's anonymity, a group of experts supported by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) identified key challenges, opportunities, and tools to raise its visibility and help law enforcers police it. NIJ, an organization within the US Department of Justice, supports various research projects to explore the nature and scope of illegal activities on the Dark Web and provides financial assistance to law enforcement agencies for their battle against these crimes.

Law enforcement agents use the same principles when investigating criminals offline to dark web research --follow up on leads, evaluate information, collect evidence, and combine different data sets to yield valuable intelligence while preserving the chain of custody.

Significant Accomplishments of Law Enforcers and Governments

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Dutch National Police, and Europol have led the most sophisticated takedown operations and the fight against criminal activities online.

The coordinated efforts and shared operational intelligence of the law enforcement agencies from 19 countries made it possible to identify 247 high-value targets resulting from the arrests and shutdown of two of the largest drug markets, specifically the Wall Street Market and Valhalla, and 50 other illicit Dark Web sites.

Many governments worldwide have improved the capabilities of their domestic law enforcement agencies to disrupt criminal activities by conducting operations that allow the "deanonymization" of Tor servers. For example, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) established nodes in the network that will enable them to see the identities and whereabouts of some illegal Tor-based sites. With its upgraded capabilities, the FBI took down the "Silk Road 2.0" website in 2014, a notorious dark web marketplace used by drug dealers, unlawful vendors, and money launderers alike. Following this accomplishment was the shutdown of AlphaBay and Hansa markets, two of the most prominent successors of Silk Road, in 2017.

Law enforcement agencies are discovering new approaches in bringing down the most notorious Dark Web sites. After the takedown of Silk Road 2.0, authorities learned that its buyers and sellers had migrated to another Dark Web site – from Silk Road to AlphaBay, and from AlphaBay to Hansa. As a result, law enforcement decided to try a different approach for Hansa. Instead of a takedown, the new strategy is to take over. The Dutch police, who tracked down Hansa in 2016, started monitoring all activities on the site. Instead of a mere takedown, they took complete control of the site by impersonating the administrators.

The media have also noted the successful initiatives in INTERPOL. I-CAN or INTERPOL Cooperation Against 'Ndrangheta, launched in 2020, was a project targeting the 'Ndrangheta mafia group. The 'Ndrangheta is one of the world's most extensive and powerful criminal organizations.

I-CAN has produced results beyond expectations. Their operations have yielded over 40 high-profile arrests and thousands of intelligence exchanges. Part of their success is using a global enforcement approach and leveraging INTERPOL's capabilities and analytical tools for sharing information, expertise, and best practices.

Through experts' workshops and technological partners, the capabilities of Dark Web Law enforcement continue to evolve. Today, Law enforcers are casting a broader pursuit to trace and arrest the swamp of illegal dealers lurking around and take down those nefarious dark web markets worldwide. The quest will target web administrators and exhume their databases for leads and evidence.

As drug traffickers, human traffickers, and other cybercriminals continue to devise new methods to conceal their illegal activities, law enforcement is not left behind. Working together, exchanging information, and breaking down walls is something these cybercriminals should worry about.

How Can Legitimate Users Help Combat Illegal Activities on the Dark Web?

The widespread use of the internet, particularly the Dark Web, increases the exposure of individuals and organizations to cybercrime. Battling illegal online activities is tough, so internet users should not leave it all to law enforcement and know how to surf the darknet securely. As legitimate Internet users, you must do your part in this fight against cybercriminals. But how? There are three keywords: Prevent, Protect, and Report.

Prevent

Increasing awareness and establishing safe online practices help prevent cyber intrusions and online crimes. Here are some security measures to take when surfing the web:

Keep your personal information to yourself. Do not share your passwords or sensitive data with friends or family online.

Be cautious about connecting to a public Wi-Fi network. Do not transact with strangers or conduct sensitive transactions, specifically purchases or anything that involves money. Online scammers may pretend to be an employee of a known company using fake IDs to make you believe that the transaction is legitimate and safe.

Do not go to unfamiliar websites and those with a reputation for being linked with scams like the Dark Web. Exploring the Dark Web without valid reasons will make you susceptible to becoming a victim of cybercrime.

Use your personal charger and USB cord in public places like airports, hotels, or shopping malls to avoid "juice jacking." These public places offer free charging stations that identity thieves may have infected with malware, allowing them to monitor and steal sensitive information from your device.

Scrutinize the email address in all correspondence and website URLs. Be skeptical about emails that seem legitimate but have questionable email addresses. Scammers often impersonate a legitimate site or email address by slightly varying the spelling.

Do not click the link in a text or email message from an unknown sender that prompts you to update or verify your account information. To confirm your account status, log in through the company's official website or call the phone number in their directory. Carefully scrutinize all electronic requests and notifications for a payment or transfer of funds.

Protect

Create a unique password that is hard to guess for each account you have. Strengthen the password by making it at least eight characters long and combining letters, numbers, and symbols. Do not use passwords that relate to you, like your birthday or wedding anniversary. Be vigilant and change your passwords frequently.

If you have a legitimate reason to access the Dark Web, protect yourself by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN conceals your IP address, protecting your identity and location from corporations, governments, and other spying eyes. Although a VPN can't protect you 100% from illegal online trackers, it provides the best way to keep your data safe.

Add another level of security to your accounts by enabling two-step verification. With two-step verification, users are protected by their password and, at the same time, a code only they can access. Banks do this to protect your online bank transactions through a one-time pin (OTP).

Update systems and software regularly and install a comprehensive internet security solution to provide the best level of protection. Establishing a reliable anti-virus program lets you scan, detect and remove threats before they cause problems. This protection helps defend your computer and data from cybercrime.

Report

If you notice any suspicious transactions on your bank accounts or receive a notification of a login attempt on your email that you did not make, report them immediately to the concerned authorities. If you think an online identity thief has hacked your online banking, close your account directly to prevent hackers from stealing your money.

Identity theft is one of the most common cybercrimes on the internet. Do not just give anyone your personal information, IDs, and credit card details. If you fall into the trap and compromise your identity, report it to the proper authorities and file an identity theft report immediately.

Reporting cybercrimes to relevant government authorities can help them better track illegal online activities and cybercriminals.

The Takeaway

There is no single solution to protect the network from its weakest link –human beings. The Dark Web will always be there, and it is impossible to take it down entirely. Governments face an enormous challenge to combat crimes happening online. Although law enforcement agencies have accomplished a great deal, the pursuit of tracking and shutting down Dark Web sites doing illegal activities continues.

Cybercriminals are constantly brooding for new and innovative methods of doing illegal activities on the Dark Web. Hackers still lurk around the internet to gain access to your data and use them for illicit transactions.

The key to protecting yourself from these cybercriminals is to be aware and on guard. While law enforcement is doing its best to protect society from these crimes, you can do your share by increasing your knowledge of cyber threats and observing safe online practices.

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