Print Edition - 2015-06-21  |  Free the Words

Dark matter

  • If law enforcement agencies are serious about reducing human trafficking they should remain watchful of the dark web
- BIMAL PRATAP SHAH
Dark matter

Jun 20, 2015-

Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said, “The internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” He was right in every sense, but if the quote was to be edited slightly to fit in the present context, ‘an extensive criminal marketplace and a hotbed of surveillance’ would probably have to be added. And there is a good reason for this. Compared to law-abiding citizens and authorities, it seems as though criminals are increasingly adept at using the ‘town square’ to their advantage.

Vulnerable children

After the series of earthquakes and aftershocks hit Nepal beginning from the end of April, close to one million children are now living in temporary shelters and streets, making them vulnerable to traffickers and pedophiles. The government has taken several commendable steps to protect children. For instance, law enforcement agencies have remained vigilant along the Indo-Nepal border and issuances of licenses for new orphanages have been suspended for the time being.

Still, there are reasons to be worried. According to the International Labour Organisation, human trafficking is one of the most profitable illicit businesses with an estimated global annual profit of $32 billion. This profitability, coupled with law enforcement’s inability to identify and prosecute the net-savvy traffickers, is bound to prompt deep concerns.

Deep, dark web

Often, the government’s kneejerk reaction in many third world countries on the issue is to limit access the internet. But this tactic is bound to fail because the internet is now regarded as a key pillar of nations’ economic strength. For that reason, a more pragmatic approach would be to identify perpetrators running illegal operations like the Silk Road and put them behind bars.

Even though the Silk Road reminds everyone of a great trade route that linked China with Europe from the 1st century BC till the end of the 14th century AD, the Silk Road discussed in this article is an anarchic black market website on the deep web.  

The deep web cannot be accessed using surface web browsers like Chrome and Safari as there are no coherent addresses, only a collection of characters. Estimates suggest that the deep web is 500 hundred times larger than the surface web. Analysts say that Google, Yahoo, and Bing only index five percent of the deep web. Therefore, using Google or Bing to surf the deep web is like scratching the tip of an iceberg.

In many instances, the deep web is used interchangeably with the dark web. The latter refers to illegal websites sites within the former. Dark web sites like the Silk Road can only be accessed using anonymity tools used for hiding IP addresses.

The other road

The Silk Road, known as the eBay of illegal drugs, was created in 2011 by Ross Ulbricht, a 31-one-year-old American. On the Silk Road, people could buy all kinds of illegal drugs without worrying about law enforcement agencies. The estimated revenue of the site was close to $1.2 billion before it was closed in 2013 following Ulricht’s arrest. Despite the arrest, the dark web is still a thriving illegal marketplace for trading weapons, drugs, fake currencies, human organs, and what not.

It would not have been possible for criminals to use the dark web with much success without the evolving ecosystem of tools that support anonymous activities. Digital cash and illegal payment gateways allow anonymous online transactions.  

Similarly, web hosting service providers in many rogue nations welcome content hosting without revealing real identities. Furthermore, if one is not a hacker, crimewares designed to help identify system vulnerabilities, community identity thefts, compromise servers and steal data can be purchased at a right price. On top of that, organised crime syndicates have hackers-for-hire for anyone looking to engage in criminal activities.

Memex matters

Until recently, only a handful of people knew about the deep web, mainly because it can only be accessed by using anonymity tools like The Onion Router (Tor). Tor’s development was funded by the US Naval Research Laboratory. It routes signals across 6000 servers to hide a page request’s origin, preventing browsing activities from being traced back to the users. And this is creating a difficult situation for authorities.

But that could change; the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is working on Memex, a search engine that could revolutionise law enforcement investigations by uncovering subtle data patterns and relationships on the internet that human investigators could easily miss. According to Darpa, Memex will crawl thousands of sites on both the dark and surface web and supposedly make things easier for the government, police, military, and the private sector. But in the end, it is still human investigators and prosecutors who interpret the Memex’s search results and make decisions.

Since human trafficking is one of the biggest menaces of all times, Darpa has made it a point to prioritise Memex’s technology to target sites that appear to be involved in human trafficking and child pornography. With Memex, law enforcement agencies will have less difficulty tracking the movements of both the trafficked and traffickers. This is done through a deep analysis of different data points of frequently changing IP addresses of sex advertisements, for instance, like phone numbers, and geolocations of the device used to post the advertisements.

On the flip side, many legitimate organisations are also moving their operations to the deep web as the surface web has become a hotbed of mass surveillance. Pro-democracy activists, whistleblowers, journalists, and businesses operating under repressive regimes have been effectively using the deep web to evade government snooping and circumvent censorship.

What Nepal can do

The UN estimates that 15,000 girls are trafficked from Nepal annually for sex trade. If the Government of Nepal is really serious about reducing human trafficking, in addition to remaining vigilant in the border areas, its law enforcement agencies should also be watchful of the dark web.

The analytical and technical capacities of law enforcement agencies should be upgraded so that they are able to make sense of Memex’s results in a meaningful manner.  It should also ensure that the skills and technology are used for making democracies work and not the other way round.  

Bill Gates was right, the internet has already become a ‘town house’, and with the USA Freedom Act in place, civil liberties are somewhat protected. Now, we just have to make it free of criminals, but without violating people’s right to use the internet to promote democracy or to spread the views of the voiceless and the disfranchised.

Shah is the co-author of ‘Strategic IT Planning for Public Organisations: A Toolkit’ published by the United Nations in 2009

Published: 21-06-2015 08:19

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