The Dark Web Might Actually Make for Safer Streets

An Interview with Joe Nedelec and Bill Mackey of the University of Cincinnati

Professor Joe Nedelec and criminology graduate student, Bill Mackey are investigating the Dark Web as an evolution of cybercrime.  Their work at the University of Cincinnati is very new, and it poses some interesting questions about how the criminal mind is evolving.

About.com interviewed Joe and Bill about the Dark Web.  The interview transcript is below.

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The Dark Web May Unintentionally Lead to Safer Streets

The Dark Web May Lead to Less Street Crime
The dark web may actually lead to less street crime. KTS Design / Getty

About.com: Professor Nedelec:  what are your thoughts on the Dark Web and online contraband being a contributor to reduced physical crime in the community? 

 

Prof. Nedelec: The Dark Web is a fascinating aspect of the Internet; it provides anonymity in a way unparalleled by the ‘regular’ or ‘surface’ web – even the currency employed by those engaged in commerce on the Dark Web is entirely untraceable.  As a result, there is a great deal of nefarious online behavior that occurs on the Dark Web (or more precisely, the Dark net) including the selling and buying of illegal substances like illicit drugs.  Providing a platform for drug dealing is certainly a negative aspect of the Dark Web; however, my co-author Bill Mackey (a graduate student here at UC) and I have wondered if drug deals conducted on the Dark Web have led to a safer way to conduct such business.  On the street, there are a number of ways a drug deal can turn ugly quickly (think Scarface).  But deals completed online are done through an intermediary that ensures the buyer receives their product and the seller receives their payment.  Additionally, the intermediary (typically a forum-style platform) allows for regulated user feedback for future buyers and sellers – think Amazon.com, but for illegal products.  Further, the buyer and seller have no idea who the other is and therefore it is virtually (no pun intended) impossible for a murder or assault to occur during a transaction.  Thus, Bill and I have thought that drug deals completed online via the Dark Web may have a dampening effect on the violence associated with the offline/street drug trade.  This dynamic could also apply to other illegal items such as firearms, explosives, or illegally obtained items.  At this point, it’s just an idea that Bill and I have discussed and not a tested hypothesis.  But, we think the logic is sound.    

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The Dark Web Will Not Lead to More White Collar Crime?

The Dark Web will not lead to more white collar crime
The Dark Web will not lead to more white collar crime. Image Source / Getty

About.com: Won't the Dark Web increase the number of stolen credit cards and other white collar crime?

 

Prof. Nedelec: It is difficult to answer this question as the baseline of these behaviors is unknown.  In criminology, there is a concept called the “Dark Figure of Crime” (it has no relationship to the nomenclature for the Dark Web), which was first recognized by Adolphe Quetelet in the 1800s.  Essentially, it refers to all the crime that occurs which goes unreported or undetected.  Criminologists recognize that certain types of crimes are more likely to be reported and/or detected than others (e.g., homicides versus minor theft).  Scholars studying white-collar crime have long recognized that the dark figure of white-collar crime is substantial, especially compared to street crime.  So, it’s difficult to say if the Dark Web will impact white collar crime in such a way.  If I were to conjecture, however, I don’t think that the Dark Web will lead to an increase in the number of credit cards stolen or other white collar crimes for a few reasons. First, the Dark Web still remains the purview of those who are familiar with navigating beyond the surface web (in other words, there is a selection process that limits the inclusion of a segment of the criminal element).  However, digital security experts have noted that – to the extent it can be tracked – traffic on the Dark Web (e.g., Tor usage) has increased substantially over the past five years.  One could certainly assume that a portion of that increase could be due to the distribution of the massive number of credit cards and personal information obtained in the numerous data breaches which have occurred over the similar timeframe.  Second, there are also a number of ‘surface’ websites that traffic stolen cards.  Such sites are highly mobile, frequently changing server locations to avoid law enforcement (of course this doesn’t require physical movement).  To my previous point, Bill and I consider these more easily accessible sites as a market for those without the know-how to navigate the dark web, but with the predilection to seek out criminal possibilities online.  In order to move beyond conjecture, however, there needs to be an increase in the amount of research in this area.  So Bill and I are hoping to chip away a little at the substantial dark figure of online crime.          

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How Does One Research the Dark Web and Its Illicit Membership?

How do you research the Dark Web?
How do you research the Dark Web?. Dazeley / Gety

About.com: How do you plan to approach this kind of research?  Has this ever been done before?

 

Prof. Nedelec: Bill and I have discussed a few potential ways of investigating our ideas.  Much like conducting research of offline or street crime, those who are engaged in antisocial behaviors are not usually excited to talk to others about it.  People who employ the Dark Web to engage in illegal behaviors are doing so precisely because of the anonymity it affords.  However, the great thing about conducting research of online activity is that there are records – of one kind or another – available for those who know how to look for them.  So we can study certain aspects of the Dark Web, as it relates to criminology, in much the same way as researchers study newspapers, Twitter, or Facebook (e.g., content analyses).  We have also considered contacting Dark net users to procure their perceptions of online drug dealing, for example, before and after their involvement in the Dark Web but still have to consider the wide range of logistical challenges.

 

To our knowledge, no research has applied a criminological analysis to the Dark Web in the ways that we are thinking.  A majority of the research in this area to date has focused on the types of activities which occur online and not as much has linked those activities to components of offline society.  The Internet is often viewed as an entirely separate entity disconnected from the offline world, which to some extent is certainly true.  However, there is a reciprocal relationship between the two worlds which creates a rich area of research potential that we are hoping to explore.

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The Dark Web Is Here to Stay?

Is the Dark Web Here to Stay?
Is the Dark Web Here to Stay?. Dazeley / Getty

About.com: Do you think that the Dark Web is here to stay?  Or is it going to just evolve into other forms over time?

 

Prof. Nedelec: The Dark Web and all its varying degrees of ‘darkness’ (from the Tor Project to the Silk Road and deeper) is an incredible entity. Interestingly, it was originally created by the government (both the naval research lab and department of defense) to enable private storage and transmission of military intelligence. Eventually, it was made open source, and modern day content and navigational tools (such as the Tor browser) made it into the community it is today.  I am hard-pressed to think of an offline analogue that on one hand allows so many great things such as anonymous avenues for whistleblowers or politically persecuted individuals to fight for human rights – such as in the Middle East and China – and on the other hand provides a global platform for the distribution of child pornography and illicit substances, the advertising of hitman-for-hire services, and many other reprehensible aspects of the human condition. 

 

Early adopters of the Dark Web viewed it as the last bastion of true privacy in our ever increasingly surveilled world – and that sentiment has not changed.  So there is a strong incentive to maintain such privacy-enhancing capabilities.  Likewise, as governments and law enforcement agencies strive to find ways to break the shield of anonymity on the Dark Web, it is probable that those who want to remain hidden will develop other ways of doing so.  Much like other aspects of cybercrime, there is a constant technical arms race between those who engage in the detecting and those who engage in the hiding.  So far, the Dark Web has proved to be an incredible hiding place.  

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How Do I Get Onto the Dark Web?

Prof. Joe Nedelec at the U of C
Prof. Joe Nedelec at the U of C. Joe Nedelec

While About.com does not condone the buying and selling of contraband, we do support the civic freedoms of democracy and online expression.  

To access the TOR Onion network, there is a browser tutorial available here.

To find the various websites and services on the Dark Web, you'll need to exert yourself and do some research. Here are 3 subreddit pages that will help you get started finding Dark Web services.

http://www.reddit.com/r/onions/

http://www.reddit.com/r/Tor

http://www.reddit.com/r/deepweb

If you'd like to contact criminology professor Joe Nedelec, you can reach him via his faculty web page at the U of Cincinnati.