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The Dark Web Explained: How Does It Work And Why Is It So Dangerous?

Approximately 5 billion people use the internet today, browsing hundreds of millions of accessible websites across various fields.

However, what many people do not know is that the internet has another face, and what they see is the "tip of the iceberg" and what hides beneath it is a massive collection of data and an economy that cannot be easily accessed or tracked.

This side of the internet is known as the Deep Web, which includes the Dark Web, a term that has been widely circulated in the Arab world recently following incidents involving teenagers, especially in Egypt and Lebanon, where the use of the dark web was discussed.

The first thread
In April, the Egyptian Public Prosecution announced the arrest of a young man on charges of killing a teenager and stealing his organs in the Shubra area of Cairo.

However, the prosecution revealed more bizarre details in its shocking investigations, including that the suspect filmed his crime live for the benefit of another teenager living in Kuwait. The purpose of filming was to sell the video to enthusiasts of such scenes on the dark web, in exchange for substantial amounts of over $106,000 (EGP 5 million).

The investigations state that uncovering this crime represents the "first thread" in a larger network for selling videos of this kind, which may reveal a larger network for selling and trading human organs.

In Lebanon, the dark web made headlines after investigations revealed a network involving more than 17 people, including celebrities on the TikTok app, who lure and sexually assault children, film the videos, and sell them on the dark web for substantial amounts.

These crimes have raised several questions about the dark web: What is being bought and sold through it? What is the volume of trade on it? And how can its users, who are committing crimes, be caught?

How can the dark web be accessed?
The internet is divided into three levels, according to cybersecurity expert Etay Maor from IBM. These include the clear net, which includes openly accessible websites like Wikipedia, Google, and others.

The deep web, which consists of encrypted sites that can only be accessed with a subscription or a password, such as personal email accounts on Gmail or Outlook, personal Netflix accounts, and websites not indexed by Google that can be accessed through secret links circulated within intelligence agencies and others.

The third level is the dark web, according to Maor, and it cannot be accessed using the same methods as the previous two levels.

First appearance
The dark web first emerged in the late 1990s as a secret network created by the US military for secure and anonymous communication with its intelligence clients.

The dark web cannot be accessed through regular browsers like Apple Safari or Google Chrome. Instead, it requires special browsers like Onion and Tor.

It does not use regular URL addresses and links having "www" or "com" symbols. Instead, it uses specific letters and symbols that are circulated among users of these sites to prevent widespread visibility.

Maintaining the secrecy and privacy of dark web users is essential, so they use virtual private network (VPN) technologies and hide their unique internet protocol (IP) addresses to avoid tracking.

Multi-billion dollar economy
According to academic definition, the dark web refers to a part of the internet intentionally hidden from view for illegal reasons, Asim Jalal, a consultant in management sciences and information technology at G&K, told Forbes Middle East.

The activities known to be available on the dark web include drug trafficking, arms trading, the sale and distribution of child pornography, as well as videos depicting human and animal torture, and other ethical deviations.

Jalal also points out that cybercrimes thrive on the dark web, where stolen credit card data and bank accounts are bought and sold.

The exact volume of trade conducted on the dark web cannot be accurately determined, according to Jalal, but estimates place the volume of transactions between $1 billion and $2 billion.

The impact and losses from cybercrimes, some of which are carried out through the dark web, are estimated at around $10.5 trillion, according to Jalal.

In May 2023, European law enforcement (Europol) arrested 288 suspects in 9 countries around the globe who were operating a website called Monopoly Market on the dark web. They seized around $54 million and 850 kilograms of drugs, as well as 117 firearms.

Europol states that the investigations into the Monopoly Market network took approximately 18 months and involved hundreds of local investigations in the countries involved. This effort also led to the shutdown of another site called Hydra Tor, which generated revenues worth $1.3 billion.

Cryptocurrencies are the key
Jalal said that cryptocurrencies are the preferred method of transaction on the dark web, due to the difficulty in tracing the parties involved and identifying their identities.

He added that cryptocurrencies ensure privacy and anonymity for users, making it challenging to trace the owners unlike bank transfers between individuals or cash transactions that require physical presence.

According to the cryptocurrency research company Chainalysis, the volume of transactions with cryptocurrencies used for illegal purposes such as fraud, terrorist financing, and ransomware, some of which occur on the dark web, amounted to at least $24.2 billion in 2023.

However, Jalal points out that dark web users have resorted to other tactics to conduct their transactions, such as offering public bank grants or donations without linking them to the goods and services they receive via the dark web, which increases the difficulty of regulating these transactions.

Can criminals be tracked on the dark web?
In October 2013, the US Federal Police arrested Ross Ulbricht, more than two years after he founded a site called "Silk Road" on the dark web.

The site facilitated the buying and selling of drugs, weapons, forged identity cards and driver's licenses, and other illegal goods.

Research estimated transactions with cryptocurrencies on the Silk Road to be around 1.35 million bitcoins (equivalent to $270 million based on the average bitcoin price in 2013 of $200).

This amount of bitcoin used on the Silk Road site represents 4.5% of the total of 29.6 million bitcoins traded across cryptocurrency exchanges in 2013, according to a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University in 2012.

Capturing suspects on the dark web is "a long and complex process, it may take years, but it's not impossible," according to Cyber Security & Digital Transformation Consultant Roland Abi Najem, who provided us with the following information:

Dark web transactions use cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin because they don't reveal the identity of their owners, and all that can be known is the account ID on the blockchain network.

Authorities can blacklist those suspicious cryptocurrency account IDs and track transactions conducted through them in the past or in the future, whether by converting cryptocurrencies to another account or converting them to cash, and then uncover the identities of their owners.

A couple was arrested in the US in 2022 for stealing cryptocurrencies worth $4.5 billion after a 5-year investigation, and the Russian REvil ransomware network, was busted in 2022, which required rare cooperation between US and Russian intelligence a month before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

According to Jalal, the most widespread method is investigators impersonating as buyers or sellers of illegal goods and commodities on the dark web in order to identify and capture the perpetrators operating through it.

However, capturing and shutting down dark web networks may take a long time, Jalal added, due to the lack of a map or comprehensive network, as it requires extensive investigation. It's also difficult to detect and neutralize spyware programs that are continuously developed and steal data for sale on the dark web.

Abi Najem advises raising awareness about the dangers of the dark web, noting the legislative and legal challenges in controlling it.

Some people, especially teenagers and young adults, use the dark web to access games and applications for free, according to Abi Najem, however "There's nothing free.. these applications may carry spyware and data breaches resulting in greater harm," he adds.

May 15, 2024

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