Investigating the Dark Web
Written by Kristi Mayo   

FENTANYL SALES, identity theft, human trafficking… At one time, those crimes may have been investigated locally, and likely confined to a particular jurisdiction. But now, there’s a good chance that tracking these kinds of crimes will take investigators into a realm far less tangible, and completely undefined by borders.

The dark web — an encrypted, anonymized part of the internet accessible only by the use of special software — is the place were an increasing amount of illegal activity is taking place. It’s not just a tool for hackers or bitcoin traders; even local gangs are making use of dark web resources. Further complicating investigations, tracing a crime across the dark web will not only defy city, county, and state boundaries, but can also cross international borders.

Despite its unfamiliarity, experts say all levels of law enforcement should have a basic understanding of the dark web. This will empower them to recognize important physical evidence, and to know how to properly collect and preserve it.

The first step toward educating law enforcement professionals about the dark web is to identify their challenges and needed resources. RAND Corporation and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), on behalf of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), brought together a panel of experts to discuss and identify the top problems and potential solutions related to evidence on the dark web. The results of this 1.5-day workshop were published in late 2019 in “Identifying Law Enforcement Needs for Conducting Criminal Investigations Involving Evidence on the Dark Web.”

In the report, authors Sean E. Goodison, Dulani Woods, Jeremy D. Barnum, Adam R. Kemerer, and Brian A. Jackson included a list of priority needs, including:

• Invest in training at all levels of law enforcement
• Improve information sharing across agencies, in the United States and internationally
• Develop new testing standards for forensic tools used to collect digital evidence
• Re-examine and modernize laws that relate to inspecting packages transmitted through the mail or other delivery services

Why the Dark Web is Important to Law Enforcement
Our everyday lives increasingly rely on the internet. Criminal activity has followed suit. The RAND dark web report cites a Carnegie Mellon University study that estimated dark net markets in 2015 accounted for $100 million to $180 million per year in sales volume. By 2017, they estimated annual sales volume to be $219 million—for just one dark web site (AlphaBay).

Not all activity on the dark web is illegal in nature. Journalists and political dissidents use its platform to communicate securely and to protect their identities and, therefore, their safety. But many online marketplaces on the dark web are indeed dealing narcotics, firearms, fraudulent documents, and other illicit materials and activities.

“Dark web marketplaces are a new variant of the more traditional street-level black market drug sale operations that law enforcement agencies have been dealing with for years,” states the RAND report. “When crime moves online, agencies need to be able to follow leads and conduct investigations seamlessly between the physical and digital worlds.”

Demystifying the Dark Web
One key issue highlighted in the RAND report is the relative novelty of the dark web to the average investigator. The inherent nature of the dark web doesn’t help: it is encrypted and anonymized to protect its users. But once it’s understood, investigations on the dark web can be likened to traditional “plain old police work” — just with more knowledge and knowhow about digital evidence.

For many law enforcement professionals, gaining even the most basic knowhow may only be possible once police administrators embrace the importance of such training. “Without command-level buy-in, funding and training time might not be made available,” says the report.

The report suggests several different levels of training are needed in order to fully equip a law enforcement agency for investigating crime on the dark web. First, officers should be given a basic overview of digital-evidence collection. The report emphasized the benefit in finding training providers with a law enforcement background, as they will be better positioned to speak to the needs and day-to-day challenges faced by their students.

The other level of training would be reserved for specialized units that already have a solid background in digital-evidence collection. “These units require more-targeted training efforts that expand on evidence preservation to include advanced training on techniques frequently used by dark web actors,” says the RAND report.

Finding sources for such training currently will prove a challenge, the report noted, particularly in more rural parts of the country. It was suggested by participants in the RAND workshop that availability of training will continue to be an issue until a market for such instruction can be developed. One way to make that happen, according to the report, could be to compel state governments to require “a certain number of hours dedicated to dark web investigations as part of the state police criteria.”

Other Needs Identified
When it comes to investigating the dark web, the panel of experts that contributed to the RAND report pinned “training and educational materials” at the top of the list of needs for law enforcement. But there are additional steps that need to be taken in order to strengthen these investigations.

One key area of focus was organizational cooperation and information sharing. Because of the cross-jurisdictional nature of crime on the dark web, it is essential that law enforcement agencies have the ability to exchange information and share resources.

The experts also flagged development of tools as an area of focus. Research and development is always useful, especially when finding ways to work with rapidly evolving technology. Standardizing existing forensic tools, and developing new tools, will help break down backlogs and streamline an investigator’s job.

The remainder of the experts’ recommendations fell into the “other” category — including updating laws that would give law enforcement a better ability to search packages in the mail, as well as conducting research that will give law enforcement an understanding of how local crime is connected to “larger problems”.

Read the Full Report
The report, “Identifying Law Enforcement Needs for Conducting Criminal Investigations Involving Evidence on the Dark Web,” can be downloaded for free at the RAND Corporation website.

This article appeared in the March-April 2020 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that issue here.

About the Author

Kristi Mayo is the editor and publisher of Evidence Technology Magazine.

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