The Dark Web has been front and center in a growing number of high-profile criminal prosecutions. In order to effectively defend these cases, criminal trial lawyers should develop a practical understanding of the Dark Web and how exactly it is being used in criminal prosecutions.
In Part 1, we’ll introduce some important general concepts and provide links to additional educational resources. In understanding the Dark Web, it helps to first learn what the Dark Web isn’t.
A central concept to law enforcement investigations is the IP address. Once law enforcement has an IP address, linking online activity to a known location and a known person is relatively trivial.
The IP Address is Everything
Law enforcement investigations rely heavily on using an IP address to tie online activity to a known person in a known location. The ability to link a person to online activity through an IP address is what led to the creation of Dark Web technology in the first place.
Clear Web, Deep Web, Dark Web
The term “Dark Web” refers to a specific subsection of the Internet as a whole, a portion that is available through an anonymizing network layer. The anonymizing layer is designed to hide the user’s real IP address, making it difficult to link a particular user to a particular computer.
In contrast, the terms “Clear Web” and “Deep Web” are used to describe portions of the Internet that are available without the additional anonymizing layer. Users of the Clear Web and Deep Web are readily identifiable by IP address, making it less of a task to link a particular user to a particular computer.
The Clear Web is also known as the Surface Web and describes publicly available resources indexable by search engines such as Google and Bing. The Deep Web refers to resources available through authentication – meaning not available for public use.
Surfing the Dark Web
Accessing the Dark Web requires special software, usually a Tor Browser, which gives the user a graphical interface to interact with the sites on the Dark Web. The Tor Browser is actually a modified version of the popular Firefox web browser and is available for most major desktop and mobile operating systems.
With the Tor Browser, the user still needs to know where to go. The user can view a number of popular sites and will even be able to access Dark Web search engines like DuckDuckGo.
The Dark Web experience is overall very similar to that of the Web we use every day. Users can find sites by typing keywords into search engines, and the sites are built using the same technologies as sites on the regular web. But there are subtle differences. For example, on the Tor network, websites will end with “.onion” and many sites will have seemingly nonsensical URLs such as “https://y6xjgkgwj47us5ca.onion”.
One stark difference users will notice on the Dark Web is the amount of illicit material advertised for sale. All it takes is a simple search, and users can purchase any number of illegal items, such as drugs, weapons, stolen credit card numbers, or illicit pornography.
The Dark Web in Criminal Prosecutions
The Dark Web has been front and center in a number of high-profile criminal prosecutions. The crux of many of these cases is law enforcement’s ability to tie in the illegal actions of an anonymous Dark Web user to a known person in a known location. From there, local prosecutors can take up the case.
In Part 2 of our Dark Web series, we’ll take what we’ve learned from Part 1 and apply it to several specific high-profile cases. From the criminal defense lawyer’s perspective, we expect to see an increasing number of Dark Web cases prosecuted in the U.S.