Due to the overwhelming levels of criminal activities present in darknet markets, law enforcement around the world are finding it necessary to fight such crime tactfully.
These offenses seem to have become standard since criminals can find anonymity with the dark web and, therefore, feel comfortable conducting their activities.
Furthermore, the emergence of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have facilitated trading over the dark web.
Law Enforcement Makes Headway in Investigations
Law enforcement is always trying to come up with long-lasting solutions to help them fight crime in the dark web efficiently. For instance, Australian Officer Janis Dalins has developed an Artificial intelligence ‘crawler’ as part of his Ph.D.
The software scans the dark web for illegal activities, then alerts law enforcement authorities whenever it comes across suspicious actions. However, this might be in violation of the fundamental privacy integrity of websites, which may hinder its approval for usage.
Unlike the artificial intelligence crawler which has been tested but yet to be put into practice, law enforcement authorities are using other tactics like network investigative techniques and poisoned water holes.
These two techniques are used when police acquire access to a particular website that facilitates criminal activities. The difference between the two methods is that in network investigative techniques, the cops run the site and send out malware to anyone who logs into the site thereby identifying and arresting their suspects.
However, with poisoned water holes, the cops run the site while feeding information to relevant law enforcement authorities to help them apprehend suspects; the poisoned watering hole technique is used when suspects are out of the investigating officers’ jurisdiction.
These tactics are not without blemish, however, as they spark legal debates based on geographical borders.
The Takedown of AlphaBay and Hansa
On 20th of July 2017, combined efforts by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Dutch National Police with the aid of Europol pulled off one of the greatest planned and executed takedown operations in the history of online crime fighting.
The action brought down the biggest and the third largest criminal darknet markets, which were AlphaBay and Hansa, respectively, through which vendors could sell illegal drugs, firearms and other items anonymously. In less than three years of its operation, AlphaBay had transacted up to USD $1 billion.
Bitdefender, an internet security company, has been advising Europol and offering support to other law enforcement authorities in the investigation of darknet marketplaces.
Thanks to their help, Europol provided authorities in the Netherlands with inquiry leads into Hansa, and continued investigations by Dutch authorities enabled them to uncover and seize the servers in Germany, Lithuania, and the Netherlands after arresting its two administrators.
Though Dutch Authorities took over Hansa on 20 June 2017, they did not shut it down immediately. Rather, they opted to monitor and collect data on the illicit transactions conducted on the website.
While all this was happening, on 5 July 2017, the FBI and DEA identified and arrested the creator and administrator of AlphaBay in Thailand with the site taken down the same day. The suspect, however, committed suicide soon after being placed in police custody.
What is quite fascinating about the entire operation is how the law enforcement authorities worked in harmony and made calculated moves to capture their suspects.
Dutch police were in control of Hansa, and due to the shutdown of AlphaBay a month prior, there was a massive influx of members shifting from AlphaBay to Hansa, allowing the Dutch to collect and share valuable information to be used towards arrests.
With the mountains of evidence in police possession, suspects were arrested, charged and convicted in various countries.
The Arrest of Tristan Brennand
Tristan Simpson Brennand, a 22-year-old who resided in Tumwater, Washington, was sentenced to 4 years in prison on Friday, October 28, 2016. Tristan was found guilty of possession of controlled substance with an intent to distribute. A three-year supervised release was imposed on top of his sentence by Judge Robert S. Lasnik.
Brennand was a vendor who tried to sell drugs through now-defunct darknet marketplaces including Agora and Evolution. A confidential informant lit the sparks of the investigation that saw him get a 4-year sentence. Although he claimed to sell drugs to quench his addiction, he had prior offenses that made it easier for the prosecution to build a case against him.
When law enforcement searched his house, they seized money more than $33,000 in cash, MDMA, and a firearm was also recovered from his accomplice along with drug dealing equipment.
Ukrainian Drug Ring Disbanded
Recently, Ukraine law enforcement arrested a drug ring suspected to have been vending drugs through the dark web.
Though Ukraine is not a leader regarding technological advancement and ingenuity, they do have a robust online presence, and their law enforcement proved that they are trying to keep up with the growth of online criminal activity.
During the police swoop, they seized UAH worth up to $19,600 and office equipment that they used to conduct their business. Though Ukrainian law enforcement did impressive work, the suspects were quite careless and did not cover their tracks well. Anonymity is vital in the dark web if one wants to keep law enforcement at bay.
The suspected vendors did not take the necessary precautions, having even engaged in social media applications like Skype, and ended up paying the price.
In the ever-changing world that we live in today, one cannot be too cautious when visiting the dark web; vendors are continually trying to conduct their business anonymously while law enforcement authorities are embracing the use of technology to conduct investigations and gather evidence to arrest criminals on the dark web.
Once law enforcement catches up with you, it is quite hard to escape from their tight grip. Therefore, it is necessary that vendors continue to ensure and protect their anonymity at all costs.