FENTANYL SALES, identity theft, human trafficking… At one time,
those crimes may have been investigated locally, and likely confined to a
particular jurisdiction. But now, there’s a good chance that tracking these
kinds of crimes will take investigators into a realm far less tangible, and
completely undefined by borders.
The dark web — an
encrypted, anonymized part of the internet accessible only by the use of
special software — is the place were an increasing amount of illegal activity
is taking place. It’s not just a tool for hackers or bitcoin traders; even
local gangs are making use of dark web resources. Further complicating
investigations, tracing a crime across the dark web will not only defy city,
county, and state boundaries, but can also cross international borders.
unfamiliarity, experts say all levels of law enforcement should have a basic
understanding of the dark web. This will empower them to recognize important
physical evidence, and to know how to properly collect and preserve it.
The first step toward
educating law enforcement professionals about the dark web is to identify their
challenges and needed resources. RAND Corporation and the Police Executive
Research Forum (PERF), on behalf of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), brought
together a panel of experts to discuss and identify the top problems and
potential solutions related to evidence on the dark web. The results of this 1.5-day
workshop were published in late 2019 in “Identifying Law Enforcement Needs for Conducting
Criminal Investigations Involving Evidence on the Dark Web.”
In the report, authors
Sean E. Goodison, Dulani Woods, Jeremy D. Barnum, Adam R. Kemerer, and Brian A.
Jackson included a list of priority needs, including:
Our everyday lives
increasingly rely on the internet. Criminal activity has followed suit. The
RAND dark web report cites a Carnegie Mellon University study that estimated
dark net markets in 2015 accounted for $100 million to $180 million per year in
sales volume. By 2017, they estimated annual sales volume to be $219
million—for just one dark web site (AlphaBay).
Not all activity on the
dark web is illegal in nature. Journalists and political dissidents use its
platform to communicate securely and to protect their identities and,
therefore, their safety. But many online marketplaces on the dark web are
indeed dealing narcotics, firearms, fraudulent documents, and other illicit
materials and activities.
“Dark web marketplaces
are a new variant of the more traditional street-level black market drug sale
operations that law enforcement agencies have been dealing with for years,”
states the RAND report. “When crime moves online, agencies need to be able to
follow leads and conduct investigations seamlessly between the physical and
One key issue
highlighted in the RAND report is the relative novelty of the dark web to the
average investigator. The inherent nature of the dark web doesn’t help: it is
encrypted and anonymized to protect its users. But once it’s understood,
investigations on the dark web can be likened to traditional “plain old police
work” — just with more knowledge and knowhow about digital evidence.
For many law enforcement
professionals, gaining even the most basic knowhow may only be possible once
police administrators embrace the importance of such training. “Without
command-level buy-in, funding and training time might not be made available,”
says the report.
The report suggests
several different levels of training are needed in order to fully equip a law
enforcement agency for investigating crime on the dark web. First, officers
should be given a basic overview of digital-evidence collection. The report
emphasized the benefit in finding training providers with a law enforcement
background, as they will be better positioned to speak to the needs and
day-to-day challenges faced by their students.
The other level of
training would be reserved for specialized units that already have a solid
background in digital-evidence collection. “These units require more-targeted
training efforts that expand on evidence preservation to include advanced
training on techniques frequently used by dark web actors,” says the RAND report.
Finding sources for such
training currently will prove a challenge, the report noted, particularly in
more rural parts of the country. It was suggested by participants in the RAND
workshop that availability of training will continue to be an issue until a
market for such instruction can be developed. One way to make that happen, according
to the report, could be to compel state governments to require “a certain
number of hours dedicated to dark web investigations as part of the state
When it comes to
investigating the dark web, the panel of experts that contributed to the RAND
report pinned “training and educational materials” at the top of the list of
needs for law enforcement. But there are additional steps that need to be taken
in order to strengthen these investigations.
One key area of focus
was organizational cooperation and information sharing. Because of the
cross-jurisdictional nature of crime on the dark web, it is essential that law
enforcement agencies have the ability to exchange information and share
The experts also flagged
development of tools as an area of focus. Research and development is always
useful, especially when finding ways to work with rapidly evolving technology.
Standardizing existing forensic tools, and developing new tools, will help
break down backlogs and streamline an investigator’s job.
The remainder of the
experts’ recommendations fell into the “other” category — including updating
laws that would give law enforcement a better ability to search packages in the
mail, as well as conducting research that will give law enforcement an understanding
of how local crime is connected to “larger problems”.
The report, “Identifying
Law Enforcement Needs for Conducting Criminal Investigations Involving Evidence
on the Dark Web,” can be downloaded for free at the RAND Corporation website.
Kristi Mayo is the editor and publisher of Evidence Technology Magazine.