SUBJECT: DARK WEB BROWSERS PROVIDE EASY CONDUIT FOR ILLEGAL AND HARMFUL ACTIVITIES
DOI: 2002 to late-2020
SOURCE: Open-source intelligence.
TOR’s creation in 2002 transformed the dark web into an easy access safe haven for criminals to conduct their illegal activities. The dark web’s open-source access will continue to present unique challenges as drug dealers utilize it for drug transactions and terrorist organizations utilize it for funding, recruitment and communication.
The dark web allows criminals and terrorists to conduct illegal activities online with full anonymity. Formally defined, the dark web is “the portion of the Internet that is intentionally hidden from search engines, uses masked IP addresses, and is accessible only with a special web browser.”1 In layman’s terms, it is an Internet network where users are untraceable and content is uncensored. Some sources trace the idea of the dark web back to certain U.S. Department of Defense developments in the1960s and 1990s.2 Yet anonymous online browsing for criminals did not find a home until the creation of TOR in 2002.3
TOR, which stands for The Onion Router, is the most infamous dark web browser. It garners its name from the idea of “onion routing” – layering Internet traffic through multiple encrypted servers.4 TOR is an open-source browser, meaning anyone with Internet access can download it in seconds. While TOR’s creators initially made the browser to evade government censorship, it evolved into a sanctuary for illegal activities.5 For instance, terrorists use dark web browsers like TOR to “plot future attacks, raise funds and recruit new followers.”6 TOR’s uncensored network also hosts markets for stolen credit cards, fake IDs, drugs, unregistered arms, hitmen, and child pornography.7 Considering the content it hosts, it is no surprise that TOR can be dangerous to browse. It is a network full of malware and scams that can easily exploit your personal information with one wrong click. However, malware alone is not what makes TOR dangerous.
Tactical Rabbit asserts that TOR’s open-source access makes it dangerous. The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) observed that free browsers like TOR allow Al-Qaeda to continue operating online despite international restrictions.8 Drug dealers, terrorists, and child predators can purchase illegal products in a matter of minutes as long as they have TOR and bitcoin, the dominant currency on the dark web.9 Dark web activity will continue to be a threat due to its easy access.
Law enforcement entities monitor dark web sites to address these threats. In 2018, FBI Operation Disarray arrested hundreds of criminals based on dark web drug transactions.10 More recently, FBI Operation DisrupTor arrested a Southern California group that completed more than 18,000 dark web drug sales.11 While these successes show that law enforcement entities can monitor the dark web, it is still incredibly difficult to do so.12 One reason for this is the volume of illegal dark web activity. In 2011, terrorist organizations alone hosted over 50,000 sites and 300 forums on the dark web.13 To combat this issue the NSA began placing anyone that downloaded TOR on a watchlist in 2014.14 Still, onion routing makes it impossible to effectively trace all criminal activity occurring in this space. Tactical Rabbit recognizes that continuous research and development on dark web monitoring mechanisms is crucial for national security.
Tactical Rabbit’s team of former CIA and FBI operatives possess the tradecraft and know-how to conduct investigations on the dark web. Tactical Rabbit does not condone illegal activity via TOR or other dark web browsers. However, simply accessing and browsing the dark web is not necessarily illegal. There are legitimate uses for the dark web, such as sending the CIA anonymous tips.15 The following are a few best practices to protect yourself if you are tasked with an investigation on the dark web: 16
● Use a VPN – There is still a risk of being traced when using TOR so you must use a VPN.
● Only use extensions already on the TOR browser – Installing others makes your activity stand out on the dark web.
● Periodically click the “new identity” tab – This erases your session’s activity, so you are not traced from one site to another.
● Never use TOR in full screen mode – Doing so leaves a unique screen resolution “fingerprint” that can be used to track your computer.
● Block Java Script – You never know what links or media contain malware. Go into the TOR settings and change your security level to “safer” or “safest” to block Java scripts.
● Make sure the websites you visit are encrypted – Encrypted websites have a green lock to the left of their URL.
● Do not use any personal accounts or discuss any personal information on the dark web.
This article was written by Everett Stern from our Tactical Rabbit Reviews series.
1 “The Deep Web vs. The Dark Web: Do You Know The Difference?,” Dictionary.com Blog, n.d., URL: <https://www.dictionary.com/e/dark-web/>, accessed November 11, 2020.
2 Ty McCormick, “The Darknet: A Short History,” Foreign Policy, December 9, 2013, URL: <https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/12/09/the-darknet-a-short-history/>, November 11, 2020; Aditi Kumar and Eric Rosenbach, “The Truth About The Dark Web,” International Monetary Fund – Finance and Development, September 2019, URL: <https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2019/09/the-truth-about-the-dark-web-kumar.htm>, accessed November 11, 2020.
3 Erica Kastner, “History of the Dark Web [Timeline],” Standard Office Systems Blog, February 2, 2020, URL: <https://www.soscanhelp.com/blog/history-of-the-dark-web>, accessed November 11, 2020.
4 Paul Svyerson et al., “Towards an Analysis of Onion Routing Security,” U.S. Naval Research Laboratory – Center for High Assurance Computer Systems, 2000, URL: <https://www.nrl.navy.mil/itd/chacs/sites/www.nrl.navy.mil.itd.chacs/files/pdfs/Syverson%20etal2000b.pdf>, accessed November 11, 2020.
5 Gareth Owen and Nick Savage, “The Tor Dark Net,” Center for International Governance Innovation, September 30, 2015, URL: <https://www.cigionline.org/publications/tor-dark-net>, accessed November 11, 2020.
6 Gabriel Weimann, “Going Darker? The Challenge of Dark Net Terrorism.,” The Wilson Center, June 4, 2018, URL: <https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/publication/going_darker_challenge_of_dark_net_terrorism.pdf>, accessed November 11, 2020.
7 Mhd Wesam Al Nabki et al., “Classifying Illegal Activities on Tor Network Based on Web Textual Contents,” Association for Computational Linguistics, April 2017, URL: <https://www.aclweb.org/anthology/E17-1004.pdf>, accessed November 11, 2020; Gar Lovejoy, “Inside the Dark Web,” Security and Society in the Information Age Volume 2, January 30, 2020, URL: <https://www.civitas.edu.pl/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/security-and-society-in-the-information-age-v-2.pdf#page=125>, accessed November 11, 2020.
8 Yotam Rosner, Sean London, and Aviad Mendelboim, “Backdoor Plots: The Darknet as a Field for Terrorism,” The Institute for National Security Studies, September 10, 2013, URL: <https://www.inss.org.il/publication/backdoor-plots-the-darknet-as-a-field-for-terrorism/>, accessed November 11, 2020.
9 Weimann, “Going Darker? The Challenge of Dark Net Terrorism.”
10 “Operation Disarray,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, April 3, 2018, URL: <https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/operation-disarray-040318>, accessed November 11, 2020.
11 “Operation DisrupTor,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, September 22, 2020, URL: <https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/operation-disruptor-jcode-shuts-down-darknet-drug-vendor-092220>, accessed November 11, 2020.
12 “A Primer on DarkNet Marketplaces,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, November 1, 2016, URL: <https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/a-primer-on-darknet-marketplaces>, accessed November 11, 2020.
13 Rosner, London, and Mendelboim, “Backdoor Plots.”
14 Weimann, “Going Darker? The Challenge of Dark Net Terrorism.”
15 “CIA’s Latest Layer: An Onion Site,” Central Intelligence Agency, May 7, 2019, URL: <https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2019-featured-story-archive/latest-layer-an-onion-site.html>, accessed November 11, 2020.
16 “How to use Tor Browser | Tor Tutorial part 1,” The Hated One YouTube Channel, April 2, 2020, URL: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yveTy-mf3u8>, accessed November 11, 2020.