Dark Web Shutdowns Could Hamper Intelligence Gathering
By Devin Richardson
The dark web, alternatively known as the darknet or deep web, has long been a subject of controversy. The concept of “onion routing,” that is messages encapsulated in layers of encryption like the layers of an onion, on a secure, private internet was originally conceived by researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Lab. The concept would eventually become the foundation for the Tor Project and browser, the predominant means for accessing the dark web by isolating each website visit so third-party trackers and ads can’t follow you.
Dark Web Initially Designed for Private and Anonymous Communication
Initially designed for private and anonymous communication, it didn’t take long for crime to gain a foothold on the dark web, eventually giving rise to illicit online marketplaces such as Silk Road and its many successors. Following seizure after seizure of darknet markets, law enforcement recently turned its sights on DeepDotWeb, one of the top two news sites and directories for the dark web and darknet markets that was hosted on the “open” web.
On May 7, DeepDotWeb was seized in a joint effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, EUROPOL and other domestic and international law enforcement agencies. According to the indictment filed in April, the website owners have been charged with money laundering pertaining to kickback payments they received from darknet marketplaces. Specifically, the defendants allegedly laundered approximately $15.5 million worth of cryptocurrencies through several shell companies.
While niche media outlets focusing on cryptocurrencies, the dark web and relevant technologies have covered the DeepDotWeb seizure, what has been overlooked is that DeepDotWeb’s main competitor, Dark Web News, shut its virtual doors of its own accord two days later.
Like DeepDotWeb, Dark Web News provided news relating to the dark web including:
- Cryptocurrency adoptions
- Cybercrime arrests
- Darknet market seizures
- Exit scams
- New anonymity tools
Dark Web News also provided a list of links for accessing sites on the dark web, including links to darknet markets. A distinct difference, though, is that Dark Web News was not shut down by law enforcement. The absence of a homepage notice “This Site Has Been Seized” proves that. Rather, the site is merely” no more,” as tweeted by the newsgroup.
Closure of Information Sources about the Dark Web Has Been Increasing
The closure of information sources about the dark web on the open web has been increasing since early 2018, when Reddit abruptly closed several subreddits including r/darknetmarkets and r/darkweb citing a “violation of Reddit’s policy against transactions involving prohibited goods or services.” Those closures took the dark web community by storm and caused users to take their conversations to the dark web on Dread – a discussion platform created in response to Reddit’s banning of relevant subreddit communities.
Of course, Reddit was not wrong to ban these communities; it is well within the company’s right in content moderation. The closures of DeepDotWeb and Dark Web News, however, come as much more of a surprise. EUROPOL has even cited both DeepDotWeb and Dark Web News in its publications Drugs and the darknet: Perspectives for enforcement, research and policy (2017) and the Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment (2018).
From law enforcement perspective, taking down a resource that was directing users to darknet markets selling contraband was a logical move. Legally speaking, EUROPOL did not infringe on DeepDotWeb’s First Amendment rights. It was a money laundering indictment and the defendant just happened to be a quasi-media entity.
So shuttering the DeepDotWeb site does not fall into the same area of the First Amendment that is being challenged when it comes to sensitive or questionable subjects as was the case with the landmark Dennis v. United States (1951) or New York Times Co. v. United States (1971).
These incidents give rise to the question what is the future of the media and the dark web? Closing, banning and seizing sites on the web has restricted open-source intelligence gathering while causing users and criminals alike to recede even further into the dark web.
From an intelligence perspective, closing down DeepDotWeb — which inevitably influenced Dark Web News’ decision to shut down — has made future intelligence collection operations more difficult for law enforcement.
It’s also relevant to note that these occurrences will deter other entities from creating content on the open web; the price to play is not worth the business risk. The people behind these sites are businessmen, not people working with a cause, like Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. When what is acceptable changes, players either change too or pay the price.