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The dark web and how police deal with it

Use of the dark web brings in unique challenges for law enforcement agencies in India and raises questions on the loopholes in the laws in place to govern cybercrime in India

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Use of the dark web brings in unique challenges for law enforcement agencies in India and raises questions on the loopholes in the laws in place to govern cybercrime in India. (Image for representational purpose)

Recently, the term ‘dark web’ has been frequently used by the police, whether in the case of the activists recently arrested by the Pune police, where the police claim they were members of the banned CPI (Maoist) and communicated through the dark web, or the Cosmos Bank fraud, where Rs 94 crore was fraudulently transferred with some assistance from the dark web. Globally, the dark web is associated with narcotics supply, child pornography, payment for arms to getting access to login and passwords for streaming sites like Netflix at cheat rates. Use of the dark web brings in unique challenges for law enforcement agencies in India and raises questions on the loopholes in the laws in place to govern cybercrime in India

What exactly is the dark web?

In simple terms, the dark web is that part of the Internet that cannot be accessed through traditional search engines like Google. Anything present on the dark web will not be pulled up in internet searches, thereby offering a high degree of anonymity. Dark web itself is only a part of the deep web that is a broader concept, which also includes things like your bank statements which are available online but will not be pulled up in generalised Internet searches. Dark web users refer to the regular web as surface web.

How does one access the dark web?

The dark web is accessed by anonymous networks with the most well-known one being the TOR browser, short for “The Onion Ring”. It is a free software that users download from the Internet to anonymously access the dark web. Developed in the mid-1990s by the United States Naval Research laboratory employees to protect US intelligence communications online, it is termed so as the traffic from the browser creates several layers like those of an Onion before reaching the destination site.

What is the nature of content on the dark web?

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In February 2016, in a study titled ‘Cryptopolitik and the Darknet’, researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid from King’s College London scraped a section of the TOR network for a period of five weeks to analyse its content. Of the 2,723 websites they could classify by content, 1,547 – 57 per cent – hosted illicit material ranging from drugs (423 sites), illegitimate pornography (122) and hacking (96), among others. ‘The results suggest that the most common uses for websites on TOR hidden services are criminal, including drugs, illicit finance and pornography involving violence, children and animals,’ the study said. There were also reports of log-in details of streaming sites like Netflix being sold on the dark web marketplaces for cheap rates. One of the most infamous dark web marketplaces was the Silk Road, best known for selling illegal drugs that was eventually busted by the FBI.

Is there an upside to the dark web?

The network is also used by several activists especially those living under oppressive regimes to communicate without any government censorship. The TOR network was used by activists during the Arab Spring and is known to have been used by Chinese citizens. It is known to have large virtual libraries available for researchers and students.

How do law enforcement agencies deal with the dark web?

In the West, there is a debate over decrypting communications to catch criminals which has been opposed by activists as it would risk everyone’s data. Cyber experts say that some FBI officers in the US go undercover on the dark web to keep track of illegal activities going on there. In India, there have at least been two cases in the past year — in Chennai and Mumbai — where LSD was purchased on the dark web using bitcoins. Mumbai DCP (Anti Narcotics Cell) Shivdeep Lande said, “It is true that in case of drugs like LSD the dark net is a big supplier. In a case last year, where we caught five students from Mumbai, they had procured 1,400 LSD dots worth Rs 70 lakh through the dark web. They would WhatsApp the number of LSD strips they wanted to a friend in the US who was a member of a dark web syndicate. He then placed an order with a cartel from the western European country and gave the Mumbai address of the boys where it was couriered. Most of these arrests can be made only after the parcel is delivered as it is very difficult to break into the dark web syndicate of these cartels that specialise in drug supplying, arms supply or human trafficking.”

Why is policing the dark net more challenging than other crimes?

The most important reason why the dark web flourishes as a place where illegal activities are carried out is the anonymity that it affords. In addition to this, Lande said the international cartels that operate like shops where you can purchase drugs, arms, child pornography videos are very guarded about allowing people in their networks. “To enter a cartel the syndicate first asks you to make some payments. It is also a time-consuming process and at times it could take up to a year before you are allowed entry in the inner circle,” Lande said. Maharashtra Inspector General (cyber crime) Brijesh Singh said, “Like regular policing where you need a network, on the dark web too you need a cell specially dedicated to trawling the web for years to make breakthroughs. In some Western countries undercover officials for example would pose as paedophiles and get access to the network to eventually bust them.” An officer said that prior to the Cosmos Bank fraud in Pune in which Rs 94 crore was fraudulently transferred from the bank there was chatter on the dark web about people looking for details on Indian banks. “Had there been some police presence on the dark web, we could have been in a better position to deal with the attack,” a senior officer said.

What do the laws say about the evidence gathered by investigating agencies through the dark web?

Lawyer Ravindranath Balla, representing activist Varavara Rao, who was arrested by the Maharashtra Police which claimed to have found letters sent by activists through the dark web that allegedly show them to be part of the banned CPI (Maoist) organisation, said that as per the amended Evidence Act, an independent expert has to confirm the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the person sending the letter and the one receiving it. The police have, however, claimed that the activists used rise.in, a dark web portal where the IP addresses are withheld. Cyber law advocates Vicky Shah and Prashant Mali, however, said that there are tools using which those using the dark web and proxy servers can be traced. Mali said, “In terms of evidence the IP address is just one of the factors. There is always some linkage that can be established, for example the proxy name used by the person on the dark web or if he has used his debit/credit card details online that can be traced to him. Gathering evidence on dark web activity is comparatively difficult but not impossible as some people tend to believe.”

Is there a need for amending the laws in keeping with the unique challenges posed by the dark web?

Cyber law expert and Supreme Court advocate Karnika Seth said that in addition to the dark net, you have self-destructive mailboxes and proxy servers where people can use fake ID’s. It definitely makes it difficult to prove a particular charge and there is a requirement for amendment to the Information Technology Act and Evidence Act. An officer said that the Information Technology Act that currently deals with cyber crime is at heart a code of e-commerce and comes under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. There are only six sections in the law that deal with cyber crime. With the changing times we need a code of criminal procedures dealing with cyber crime that would come under the Ministry of Home Affairs, which deals with policing issues. Shah, however, said that more than dealing with newer laws, there is a need for police trained in changing cyber trends who are dedicated only to cyber crime and not transferred to other police units.

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