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(TNS) — The Dark Web has been at the heart of an ongoing probe into an international drug trafficking operation, an investigation that started in Grand Forks, N.D.
The probe sprung from the death of an 18-year-old Grand Forks resident who overdosed on fentanyl citrate, a highly potent synthetic opioid, in January and has since stretched not only across U.S. borders, but also across the borders of the traditional Internet, into the Dark Web.
But what is the Dark Web and who uses it
Since February, at least 10 people have been indicted on federal drug-related charges, some of whom are accused of using the Dark Web to buy and sell drugs under a cloak of anonymity. Most recently, officials unsealed the indictment of Daniel Vivas Ceron last month, a Colombian man whom federal prosecutors allege was the leader of the international drug trafficking operation, which did much of its business on the Dark Web.
Acting U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Chris Myers underscored the difficulties technology — like the Dark Web — poses when trying to catch criminals.
"The folks that are distributing these substances are using increasingly more sophisticated technology to remain anonymous, making our job that much more difficult," Myers said.
Last month, Myers warned a room of reporters of the dangers posed on the Dark Web.
"You can buy anything if you find the right website on the Dark Net," he said referring to the Dark Web. "From tigers to hand grenades to controlled substances, it's there."
While the Dark Web does prove to be a haven for drug dealers, arms traffickers, child pornography collectors and other criminals, it is also a bastion of free speech for political dissidents living under oppressive regimes and a sanctuary from government surveillance, experts say.
The Herald, in an effort to explain the complexity of the Dark Web, how it functions and how Web users utilize it, reviewed literature and talked with Danny Bradbury, a technology writer who has written on the topic in the journal Network Security.
Q. WHAT IS THE DARK WEB?
A. The Dark Web is a layer of the Internet accessible only by using special software like Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, or I2P, which stands for Invisible Internet Project. Websites and information on the Dark Web are intentionally hidden and cannot be accessed using traditional search engines like Google.
Other layers of the Internet are the Surface Web and the Deep Web, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The Surface Web is what most Internet users are familiar with and refers to websites and information found by using traditional search engines. The Deep Web cannot be accessed by traditional search engines because its content is not indexed by Google, Bing, etc. Information on the Deep Web includes content on commercial databases like LexisNexis and Westlaw or websites that produce content via search queries or forms, according to the Congressional Research Service report.
Q. WHAT IS TOR AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
A. Tor is the network most widely used to access the Dark Web. It was initially developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory as a tool for keeping government communications private. Tor transmits a user's Web traffic through a series of computers located around the globe, called nodes, making a user's online movements difficult to track.
Bradbury compared it to putting a message inside multiple envelopes and sending it through multiple people. The message goes in an envelope, he said.
"But then you put that envelope inside another envelope and inside another envelope and inside another envelope ... and then you send that off. ... And every time it reaches someone, it gets forwarded on to someone else," he said.
Q. WHO USES THE DARK WEB?
A. The Dark Web is often used by individuals who want to preserve anonymity. That includes criminals, terrorists and state-sponsored spies. The Dark Web does contain websites selling illicit goods, including drugs, weapons, exotic animals, stolen goods and more. Child pornography is also traded via the Dark Web.
"Perhaps the most publicized exploitation of the Dark Web was Silk Road, a black market website for vendors and customers of illicit goods and services," Bradbury wrote. The FBI shuttered the Silk Road in 2013, which at the time was the "cyber underworld's largest black market," according to the Congressional Research Service report.
The same report says the Islamic State may be using the Dark Web to share information, recruit members, disseminate propaganda and raise virtual money for their operations.
Dark Web users also include political dissidents, activists, journalists, law enforcement and the military.
"Tor is about making freedom of speech possible," Bradbury said. "Especially in countries where governments really put the thumb screws on people being online, ... Tor has been used as a way to enable those people to communicate and get those messages out and even organize within their own countries in ways that stop them from being detected," as political dissidents reportedly did during the Arab Spring, the 2011 civil uprisings against central governments in Middle Eastern countries, including Libya and Egypt.
Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden reportedly used an operating system that automatically runs Tor to communicate with journalists and leak classified information on the United States' mass surveillance programs, according to the congressional report. Snowden fled to Moscow in the wake of the leaks and has been charged with espionage by the U.S. government.
Tor also advertises itself as a way to protect one's children, saying children may be sharing their location by not hiding their IP addresses.
Q. HOW DO LAW ENFORCEMENT IDENTIFY CRIMINALS OPERATING ON THE DARK WEB?
A. Oftentimes, law enforcement rely on the human error of the criminals they pursue.
For example, it was a misstep that led Homeland Security Investigations to a Portland, Ore., man, who has pending drug conspiracy charges against him in U.S. District Court in Grand Forks. Agents believe Brandon Corde Hubbard, 40, was the one who sold the fentanyl citrate that claimed the 18-year-old Grand Forks resident's life. Hubbard's mistake was he allegedly used the same username — pdxblack — on a legitimate messaging service called KIK as he did on the illegitimate Dark Web site, Evolution, where he allegedly sold drugs, according to federal court records. From there, federal agents were able to subpoena KIK and ask for subscriber information, which had Hubbard's IP address. Agents then used the IP address to find his identity from his Internet provider.