Online, Unaccountable

If you keep up with technology or crime news, you may have heard of the Silk Road. Not the ancient trade route from China to Europe, but the dark web network that after facilitating the sale of illegal drugs and forging government documents was shut down in 2013. The shutdown attracted a lot of attention to the dark web. The dark web is a subsection of the ‘deep’ web, or a collection of sites that cannot be indexed by search engines. These sites, publically inaccessible without specific credentials, operate entirely on overlay networks, highly secure connections that require untraceable configurations in order to access. This, combined with the fact that the Silk Road operated using exclusively Bitcoin, an unregulated and international “cryptocurrency” that exists entirely in the digital realm but can be exchanged for national currency such as USD, meant that transactions on the Silk Road were essentially untraceable. The Silk Road itself wasn’t malicious, even if it fueled illegal drug trade and forgery rings. What caught the public eye was the concept of a completely untraceable and unregulated transaction. Media at the time made the point that if no one could watch over a meth deal, what was to stop untraceable assassins-for-hire from popping up over the dark web? Crowdfunded terrorism? Pay-per-view child pornography?

As it turns out, nothing.

Hitman groups exist by the dozens across the dark web, and have for nearly a decade. While some of these groups are laughable scams, the emergence of cryptocurrency and the dark web has effectively eliminated the money trail and client-hitman communication. It’s reasonable to believe that a majority of assassinations and hits in the modern era are carried out over this entirely untraceable service. As far as crowdfunded terrorism goes, The Assassination Market, an active darknet service, allows users to freely contribute to a pool of bitcoin towards major targets. The chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Benjamin Bernanke, has roughly the equivalent of $140,000 on his head for anyone who can provide proof of his assassination. And as far as pay-per-view child pornography, a breathtaking number of particularly unethical porn companies thrive on the dark net, making films focusing on extremely graphic sexual violence. No Limits Fun, a ‘company’ considered extreme even for this sector of the darknet, inspired an international manhunt when its productions were uncovered by the police. No Limits Fun specialized in the production of torture, murder and rape films. Its victims included children and infants. The sheer brutality of its productions elevated it to urban legend status, likely because people could not comprehend how or why such films would be produced.

These films, known as “hurtcore,” were sold to some individual customers for upwards of ten thousand USD – in bitcoin, of course. Short of confessions or personal communication, there’s absolutely no way to know who the vast majority of those customers were. And with the rise of ultra-powerful quantum computing, the untraceable nature of digital transaction will only grow stronger, as encryption is always a step ahead of decryption.

Since drawing the public eye in the 1980s, cybercrime has largely been seen as a joke, or even noble. Its image is represented in Nigerian email scams, poorly-made Albanian viruses and quirky hacking groups that deface and shut down megacorporate websites. But as digital technology becomes more advanced, the scope of its actions do as well. Digital crime is no longer the realm of third-world scammers or geeky hackers with hearts of gold. It’s becoming the domain of the neo-mafiosi, the professional assassin and the cunning, violent pedophile right under our noses, and there’s little being done about it. The methods that national intelligence agencies like the FBI and NSA use to combat these agencies are increasingly primitive – the founder of the Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, was only eventually arrested because he posted his full name and email address on a programming forum with the same username he used in the early days of the Silk Road. If it’s any consolation, the infamous concept of the ‘Red Room,’ or private dark net URLs where a victim is tortured or raped live to an interactive, paying audience, don’t actually exist because the dark net’s hefty configuration requirements currently make livestreaming too slow to be viable.

Investigations involving the dark net are costly and slow, and international agencies have barely been able to tackle a tiny fraction of its illicit traffic using ineffective methodology. With services ranging from drugs to hitmen growing in popularity every year, the miniscule amount of resources and public attention dedicated to the criminal world’s biggest rising star needs to change. In a world where anyone can anonymously donate money to terrorists or hitmen, and it takes years of costly investigation to find a single suspect, can you ever be truly safe?

Contact Max Goldenberg at [email protected]