Ross Ulbricht was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2013 for operating an online marketplace for illicit drugs called Silk Road. The site could be found on the so-called Dark Web where Ulbricht (known by the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts") remained anonymous and thus shielded -- however briefly -- from law enforcement. Silk Road wasn't accessible through just any desktop browser, nor could buyers use their credit card for purchases of heroin, methamphetamine, or other substances.
But just as Silk Road was shut down, others filled the void. As the name would suggest, the Dark Web operates in the shadows of the internet, cloaked in encryption and reached only through certain encrypted browsers. Below, we'll explain what the Dark Web is, how it differs from the Deep Web, the types of crimes it harbors, and how law enforcement tracks and prosecutes Dark Web crimes.
Note: FindLaw doesn't condone accessing the Dark Web or downloading encrypted browsers. Do so at your own risk.
Is the Dark Web Illegal? An Introduction
The Dark Web allows users to remain anonymous through encryption. This is attractive to anyone involved in illegal activity, such as child pornography, sex trafficking, illicit drugs, or counterfeit goods. But it also may be useful for anyone living in an authoritarian state wishing to communicate with the outside world, as well as providing a safe space for whistleblowers. So while it's not illegal to visit the Dark Web, it provides access to illegal activities.
Web sites that exist on the Dark Web are encrypted (and thus difficult to track), most commonly through the Tor encryption tool. Therefore, most Dark Web users access those sites using the Tor browser. There are other encryption tools and corresponding browsers such as I2P (these are not universal, by design) and you have to know the exact URL in order to access the site. There's no "Google" for the Dark Web because that kind of indexing would provide a breadcrumb trail for investigators.
Another layer of anonymity involves the way payments are processed. Silk Road, for example, only accepted payment via Bitcoin, which is an unregulated cryptocurrency. As with the Dark Web generally, there's nothing illegal about using Bitcoin. But the anonymity of Bitcoin payments is attractive to those making illegal transactions.
The Difference Between Dark Web and Deep Web
The term "Deep Web" refers to web sites that can't be found by search engines, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're part of the Dark Web. For instance, the Deep Web includes things like web forums that require registration, news sites that exist behind paywalls, and other pages that aren't necessarily secret but also not worth (or blocked from) indexing by search engines. The content management systems used by website operators to upload and manage content also are part of the Deep Web, for example.
But the Deep Web -- by far the largest segment of the internet -- also includes the Dark Web, since it also can't be tracked or indexed by search engines. The terms are often interchanged, but they refer to distinctly different things. Also, keep in mind that the term "Dark Internet" is where raw data for scientific research is stored and isn't synonymous with the Dark Web.
Examples of Dark Web Crimes
Any type of crime with covert transactions, whether it involves drugs, money, or even human beings, can be committed on the Dark Web. The darkest corners of the internet are merely a platform for myriad offenses, but here are some examples of Dark Web crimes:
How Dark Web Crimes are Investigated
Because of the anonymous nature of the Dark Web, investigators have their work cut out for them. One of the main ways to catch criminals is by going undercover online, which can sometimes lead to real-life connections when, for example, an officer posing as a seller obtains the buyer's mailing address. Also, the target of an investigation may slip up and reveal personally identifying information. In fact, an investigator with the Internal Revenue Service found an incriminating comment by Silk Road's Ulbricht along with his email address, which would lead to his eventual arrest.
Since many of the transactions conducted via the Dark Web are completed by the U.S. Postal Service, police sometimes are able to match online clues with surveillance footage, handwriting analysis, and other clues. They may even find fingerprints on the package, potentially revealing the sender's identity. Following the money also can be effective, even though the anonymous nature of Bitcoin makes that much more difficult. Still, the Department of Homeland Security has a dedicated task force focused on tracking money laundering via cryptocurrencies.
Other approaches involve the use of sophisticated technology and hacking techniques. For example, the FBI used malware to go after child pornography site Playpen. The software caused users who clicked on the forum to reveal their real IP addresses, which were then sent to investigators. Another hacking technique exploited a vulnerability in the Tor browser, allowing investigators to see the IP addresses of Dark Web marketplaces and users. Ultimately, it's a game of cat-and-mouse.
Questions About Dark Web Crimes? Protect Yourself by Contacting a Criminal Defense Attorney Today
Whether you were falsely ensnared in a Dark Web criminal investigation, had your privacy violated, or just want a solid defense to your charges, you have the right to legal counsel. An attorney experienced in such cases will understand the complex details of both the law and the technology involved. Get help today by contacting a skilled criminal defense attorney near you.