International coalition moves to take down the dark side of the web

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re listening to The World. In the spooky world of national intelligence, to “go dark” means to “go silent.” But on the internet, dark means “elicit and out of sight.” So, the “dark web” is that murky space where criminals set up sites to trade drugs, or weapons, or child pornography -- sites the rest of us can’t easily access. Today, the European police agency, Europol, announced a big international crackdown on the dark web. The headline here -- 400 dark websites shut down, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to Europol consultant, Alan Woodward.


Alan Woodward: When you use a search engine to find something on the web, of the order of 500 times more than what you’ve got access to there is actually also on the web.


Werman: 500 times more?


Woodward: And a portion of that is the dark web, so that’s the bit that’s being used by criminals. So, it’s quite an enormous chunk. It really is like an iceberg. There’s probably 10% that’s actually visible, that most people are aware of and then there’s this huge plethora of website and dark sites, that really it’s really difficult to gauge how many there are and exactly what they’re doing.


Werman: What tools do people who are involved in the dark web used to access it?


Woodward: Well, the one that’s being used principally so far is being called the Tor network, that stands for “The Onion Router.” You can use it quite legitimately in order to surf the web anonymously so nobody can track where you’re surfing from. But it also allows them to set up hidden websites which, for law enforcement agencies, it’s very difficult; if someone is trading illegal substances, items, you physically can’t track where that site is being hosted. So, trying to go and either make an arrest or, probably more importantly, go shut them down, becomes practically impossible.


Werman: So, 400 sites, including Silk Road 2.0 were shut down and several arrests were made. Put this into perspective for me, what is the significance of this raid?


Woodward: I think what’s probably most unprecedented about this is that it’s the amount of international cooperation, because one of the reasons the dark web -- it’s not just the technology, but one of the reasons it can operate is that what’s happened in the past, the criminals that have operated in one country and committed illegal acts in another. And so it’s been very difficult to get up and to cross borders. This involved many, many countries, including part of the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, as well as Europol -- a whole series of countries in Europe. That level of cooperation allowed a coordinated single swoop basically, to shuttle these sites down over a period of a few hours and make all the arrests. So, the guys just weren’t aware that somebody was coming to get them.


Werman: Tor, this tool that the people on the dark web use to communicate, when was it created and why was it created?


Woodward: It’s a very interesting story. It’s slightly perverse in some ways. It was actually created by the United States Naval Labs, so it’s the US government who actually developed it originally. What it says is it was intended to allow their people to communicate securely and anonymously from high risk areas so they couldn’t be tracked. It’s now run as a separate project. It still gets some funding from the US government. It has many legitimate purposes. It’s just unfortunate that the criminals have co-opted it, and it’s kind of got a bit of a bad name. But the technology itself is not bad. It’s like all technology -- it’s not evil, it’s not good. It’s what people do with it.


Werman: With this raid, are you at all concerned that Europol threw out a really wide net and shut down more sites than they needed to?


Woodward: No. If anything, there’s more to come. So, as I said, I would expect more operations. I think where a lot of these things are targeted is it’s good, old-fashion police work. They detect all sorts of illegal operations going on and then they go after the worst of the worst. They’re not shutting Tor down. So, the legitimate purposes can carry on. But I think what this operation shows is that the ability of the law enforcement agencies to police Tor is now significantly more than it was even a year ago.


Werman: Finally, the BBC mentioned new techniques that the US and Europol used to track down these dark websites. Tell us what those techniques are.


Woodward: Well, it probably isn’t a good idea to go broadcasting them. Obviously, the more you tell the criminals, the more countermeasures they can take. One of the things about this whole area is it is an arms race. So, you probably won’t get anybody talking about any of the technical techniques that are used here.


Werman: So, does that mean that you don’t know, or you know but you won’t tell us?


Woodward: I couldn’t possibly comment, I think is the best way to put it.


Werman: Alan Woodward, professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey and a consultant for Europol. Thanks for your time.


Woodward: Pleasure.