News report of cases connecting individuals to the procurement and transfer of illegal goods from the dark web have been on the rise in the recent past.
Irishman Jonathan Hawthorn, one of the most recent convicts, was found to have close links to the unlawful Irish Republican Army (IRA) and attempted to procure a grenade and Semtex (a plastic explosive) on the dark web.
The case reveals a transaction process that is very complex and highly disguised.
The dark web has facilitated such transactions for a number of years, and it has largely been found to be the lifeline of most criminal organizations and individuals who want to purchase illegal goods under the protection of anonymity.
The prosecution was able to put together the pieces of evidence linking Hawthorn, a resident of Dublin, to the transaction of illegal weapons but largely relied on the evidence of an undercover agent with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation who used AlphaBay, a now-defunct darknet market, to track the process.
How the Arrest Was Conducted
To underpin the evidence in the case, the prosecution and the undercover agents had to analyze a wide network of operatives, most of whom remained unknown until when the case was concluded.
An individual known online as “Meat Cleaver” contacted the FBI agent and ordered a handgun, Semtex, 100 rounds of ammunition and a hand grenade. It is believed that the user who was ordering the goods was not Hawthorn.
The Gardaí were able to organize a dummy delivery to Hawthorn, a “trusted member” of the IRA, a violence-oriented paramilitary group aiming to establish a republic in Ireland.
Upon delivery of the goods, Hawthorn proceeded to sign for the goods under the name of another person mentioned in the case as Mr. Geraghty.
The transaction model is founded on established principles of anonymity, and this is the reason it has been difficult to successfully convict most of the people accused of illegal operations in the dark web.
Hawthorn’s co-accused, James Geraghty and Donal O’Ceallaigh were found not guilty for lack of evidence that would suffice to hold their prosecution and walked free from the courts the same day.
While the case sounds conclusive from the fact that Hawthorn has been sentenced to five years in prison, a number of concerns remain on the success of IRA to procure illegal weapons from the dark web.
First, the individual believed to have ordered the F-1 Soviet fragmentation grenade was not in the case. The efforts to close both ends of the transaction process was largely futile, and the public would be wondering how many of such transactions are still moving.
The Bigger Picture
It is difficult to prove links between accused persons and to sustain the evidence. Operations in the dark web hardly leave a trail that can be followed by online policing agents and investigators for a long time.
At times even the closest of associates in a network are not certain of who they are dealing with.
Much like a well-functioning assembly line, criminals engaged in illegal business in the dark web only have as much information as is sufficient to complete the transaction.
Any attempt to break a highly encrypted network of anonymous individuals is often followed by its closure and loss of the entire trail.
Most of the weapons and ammunition purchased on the dark web are believed to come from more radical market systems across the globe.
The war between the east and the west for control of cyberspace has overly influenced the growth of dark web operations.
Given that the greater process is done in virtual environments, no empirical data or evidence can suffice as a conclusive argument that Hawthorn and most of the IRA counterparts have suppliers in specific areas.
The main habitat for the process is the platform: disguised networks and online anonymity granting systems.
Illegal operations in the dark web have completely changed the dynamics of criminal investigations and policing.
Investigations are likely to grow increasingly risky and delicate.
Online criminals are becoming more adaptive and finding new methods of disguising their operations and keeping the tracking agents off.
No person can certainly confirm the feasibility of a judicious online policing campaign to minimize the social costs of anonymity-granting technologies.
Given that anonymous systems in online platforms are not indexed, running a successful investigation has proven to be difficult.
Various law enforcement agents are tightening their war against the trade of illegal goods, including weapons, purportedly used by illegal organizations such as the IRA.