Virtual Crime: Myth and Reality

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In the concluding part of the 3-part series on internet, Azra Hussain writes about the double edged weapon of annonymity that state and non-state actors require for their own reasons. It is this desperation to protect the individual identity that is source to the debate on crime through internet

In October 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shut down the largest accessible online drug marketplace, the Silk Road, and arrested its alleged creator, Ross Ulbricht, 29, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, under charges of trafficking narcotics, fraudulent documents, computer hacking, and money laundering. The arrest was made in the Glen Park branch of San Francisco Library when Ulbricht was logged into the website as an administrator. The site with estimated net revenue of $1.2 billion was in operation since 2011. The news of this arrest spread far and wide, bringing mainstream attention to the dark web.

Graph showing the traffic over the Tor Network. The sudden increase in users was after mainstream media outlets reported the arrest of Ross Ulbricht.

Roughly five weeks after the Silk Road was taken down, ex-admins of the website launched Silk Road 2.0. A few months later, this website was shut down as well and another arrest was made in San Francisco. A few hours later, Silk Road 3.0 came up, and this seemingly endless chase continued.The Silk Road was just one website among countless other websites selling every drug imaginable and more.

However, only 3.4 – 6.1 percent of the total traffic on the Tor network is either relayed to or overlaps these dark web sites, which are also known as hidden services. Hidden services are websites, which do not exist on the surface web, and hence cannot be accessed through regular browsers. Hidden services can only be accessed through specialized software like Tor or FreeNet. Hidden services on the Tor Network end with the domain.onion.

Murder-for-hire Services

When Ulbricht was arrested, the FBI pressed charges of involvement in six different murder-for-hire cases using dark web hit men services. These charges were, however, never filed due to the fact that none of the murders occurred, and some of the identities did not even exist to begin with. Some people speculate that false murder charges were pressed in order to tarnish the reputation of the drug market kingpin, who otherwise believed that there was absolutely no need to deal with problems using violence.

However, such hit men service websites can be found all over the dark web, but the problem with those is the lack of evidence. Anyone, with adequate means and technical knowledge, can set up a website on the dark web claiming to do anything for any reason, so there is no way to trust somebody, especially when there is money involved. Since the host’s identity is mostly secure, it is very easy to scam people without even getting into trouble. This is why the Silk Road was so popular; the clients and the sellers were verified and trusted each other, which made the marketplace a united community.

Recently, a hitman-for-hire service website known as Besa Mafia was allegedly hacked and emails were leaked by the hacker(s) suggesting that the website was set up just to scam people of their money. “We receive orders to kill people from all over the world, however, our site is fake and we don’t have any hit men,” one leaked e-mail reads. “We forward the orders to police departments where the targets are located.” Strangely, yet another leaked email reads: “This website is to scam people of their money. We report them for two reasons: to stop murder, this is moral and right; to avoid being charged with conspiracy to murder or association to murder, if we get caught.”

People have argued that the database leak is a fake ploy to damage the reputation of Besa Mafia, and that it is real. This argument comes across as plausible because of the fact that no sensitive information or identities were revealed. If the website had actually been hacked, the hosts and the clients would have been revealed and at least a few arrests would have been made. Either way, the website is now closed for business and has never been heard of ever since.

Child Pornography

This is not, however, the end. The invisible part of the internet has gruesome and depraved extremes. Countless hidden sites contain different forms of sexualized torture and killing of animals. Child pornography (CP) sites are one of the greatest problems on the dark web.

In 2013, the hacktivist group Anonymous took down a CP website known as Lolita City. This site had over 100 GB of photos and videos and 14,994 active members as of June 2013. Another such site called Playpen was taken down by the FBI in 2015. Playpen might have been the largest CP hosting website on the internet, with over 117,000 posts and an average of 11,000 new visitors every week. A month after its launch, the website had gained a huge following of 60,000, and by next year, the number had ballooned to 215,000.

Red Rooms

‘Red rooms’ are an urban legend of sorts commonly associated with the dark web. A red room is said to be a livestream of a person being tortured and/or murdered for the entertainment of others. It is also said that the viewers can interact by typing down instructions or comments. Despite there being no proof of such a livestream ever taking place, the myth persists.

Livestreaming on the dark web, some people argue, is very slow and the resolution of the video feed is extremely low, which accounts for a decent argument. But with secure and fast connections, highly compressed videos with a resolution of 720p can be streamed with an average delay of one second. It is also possible for a limited number of users to connect to the network in order to view the livestream and carry out interactions through comments. Since the stream is not public or visible, people who pay can be given unique, one-time links to the livestream, which expire after the stream, ends. Hence, even though it requires a lot of equipment and security, it’s not entirely improbable that such livestreams take place.

Usage

A study by researchers at King’s College London carried out in February 2016 breaks down the content of the dark web.

Mainstream media would have you believe that the surface web is just a thin layer of innocent content hiding a vast criminal network underneath, but that is just a myth. Most of the traffic on the Tor network is just common people wanting to protect their privacy and/or remain anonymous, and have probably never visited a .onion website. These are innocent, lawful citizens who do not want their data to be copied and recorded against their will for completely justified reasons. Some journalists, whistleblowers and government agents use these softwares to protect not only themselves, but also the information they carry. So while it is true that there exists a criminal underground hidden somewhere in this seemingly blameless mass of people, it is nowhere near as extensive and large as some people make it out to be.

With all that out of the way, there remains only one question: How can we prevent criminal activities from taking place while simultaneously allowing innocent, law-abiding citizens to protect their privacy and use the deep web without restrain? The answer is quite obvious; we can’t.

It is impossible to try to restrain something that was originally programmed to expand and accommodate all the information it could get. That is the loophole in this seemingly perfect plan that the US Government had formulated. They definitely must have seen it coming, but there was not much they could do to prevent it from happening. They did not create Tor to protect everyone’s privacy or to release it to the public for free; they were forced to release it to the public because public usage is a decisive factor in the making of an anonymous network. That is the problem with anonymity; anyone can do or say anything they want, without any repercussions whatsoever. Even if any law enforcement agency had the authority or power to shut the entire network down, they wouldn’t, because they are in need of anonymity just as much as everyone else. A government agent working for an undercover mission needs to hide his identity just as well as an assassin or a whistleblower does, and we are left with no choice but to swallow the pill and accept both the benefits and the side effects of anonymity.

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