PC Pro (Part 4)

Policing the darknet

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Do these applications and services make things more difficult for those investigating, say, child abuse? “To a degree,” a spokesperson for the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) told us. “We are aware of darknets, closed networks and closed forums, and how offenders are using them to communicate, but we can and we do use everything within our power to track down these people.”

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It’s also worth pointing out that services such as TOR are in active use by law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. After all, it’s hard to investigate criminal networks if your IP address marks you as a cop.

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Of course, it isn’t only ordinary criminals who have adopted the dark web. Terrorist organisations, too, are looking at it as an alternative to more easily monitored forms of internet communication. In 2007, Mark Burgess, director of the World Security Institute in Brussels, warned that “too much focus on closing down websites could also be counter-productive, since it likely forces terrorist websites to go underground to the so-called ‘deep’ or hidden web”.

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It looks like this warning was justified. In an article written for the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy, West Point, Dr Manuel R Torres Soriano, professor of political science at the University of Seville, explains how Islamic terrorists have responded to the constant closure of propaganda websites by going underground.

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They’ve adopted the practices of internet pirates by using file-hosting websites and forum software to maintain a web presence. Online terrorists have also been known to use TOR (its use is covered in some Jihadist FAQs), and have even created their own secrecy tools, such as the Mujahideen Secrets encryption tool.

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However, the same techniques being used to mine the deep web for information can also make life harder for the terrorists. In 2007, a team led by Hsinchun Chen of the University of Arizona unveiled a project, DarkWeb, which now tracks terrorist activity across the surface and deep webs.

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Where previously various counter-terrorist and law-enforcement agencies worked piecemeal on infiltrating and extracting information from websites and forums, DarkWeb is designed to root out terrorist groups and, in Chen’s words, “exhaustively collect their content”.

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Over the past eight years, DarkWeb has collected close to two million files, documents, videos and messages, logged them and made them accessible to intelligence agencies and research bodies across the world. If these organisations want to investigate a threat or try out new theories, they no longer have to trawl the deep web themselves. Instead, “they can take a look at that collection and study it in a more systematic and data-driven manner,” said Chen.

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As far as Chen is concerned, however, darknets and closed forums aren’t a major concern. “In general, 95 to 99% [of terrorist content], is really in the open area,” he explains. For terrorists, moving to “somewhere more secretive, like a darknet, isn’t so interesting because they won’t be able to recruit or touch or influence a large number of their target audience”.

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The Internet Watch Foundation – the UK industry body charged with removing paedophile content from the web – makes a similar point about child abuse. “The majority of content still comes from big, commercial enterprises,” a spokesperson told us, “and they need to be out there on the open web.”

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In fact, Dr Chen argues that terrorists are more likely to make use of familiar forms of communication. “We’ve done a lot of work in websites, forums and even on YouTube, and now we’re doing a lot of exploration in Second Life, because we need to monitor the more fluid and more dynamic web environments that are more difficult to look at.”

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In short, there’s some dark stuff going on in the deep, dark portions of the web, but don’t get too hung up on it. After all, there’s plenty of equally dark stuff still floating on the surface.

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Author: Stuart Andrews

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Read more: The dark side of the web | Analysis | Features | PC Pro http://www.pcpro.co.uk/features/356254/the-dark-side-of-the-web/4#ixzz2BrZl5Wc6

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