There is the World Wide Web – the primary tool billions of people use to access information on the internet – and then there is the notorious dark web, a collection of websites that exist on an encrypted network.
It’s here where illegal activity often takes place, such as online black markets to facilitate the sale of firearms, drugs, child pornography and stolen credit card numbers.
“On the dark web, if you can dream it up, it’s there,” said detective Josh Newman of the Durango Police Department. “The internet is huge, and most of what we do is only 5 percent of it.”
Newman and Suess Beyer of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office specialize in digital forensics and electronic crimes. Policing the dark web is a fraction of their responsibilities as detectives, but it is a hard task, Newman said.
“Most times you find out someone is dealing on the dark web after the fact,” he said. “You seize their phone and computer for another reason, get search warrants and then see they have been searching on certain browsers related to the dark web.”
The remaining 95 percent of internet content is only accessible with special tools and software.
This includes the deep web, another subset of the internet that is not indexed by major search engines, but it is not synonymous with the dark web. The deep web is all of the data behind firewalls such as user databases, web archives and password-protected websites.
The presumably nefarious dark web is often misunderstood, and the scope of what can be accessed through it is eye-opening.
Websites on the dark web cannot be found by using traditional search engines or browsers. However, anyone can download the appropriate and free software needed to access the them, Newman said.
“It is easy to be anonymous on the dark web and conduct activities that are untraceable,” he said.
There is no shortage of internet crimes in the Four Corners, Newman said, but a shortage in funding and resources means it cannot all be investigated.
“We could be doing this full time easily,” he said. “But sometimes, we just don’t have the time to do that.”
Locally, Beyer and Newman are the only detectives capable of performing most digital forensics.
“The training is extensive and the equipment is expensive,” Newman said. “But we are trying to be proactive in our online investigations because it is very rampant.”
He said one of the most infamous online black markets is Silk Road, named after the historic network of trade routes started during the Han Dynasty between Europe, India and China.
Silk Road was founded in February 2011 primarily as a platform for selling illegal drugs. It was shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in October 2013, and the website’s creator, Ross William Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in prison.
Shoppers who frequent underground marketplaces on the dark web often use Tor, but there are other reasons people use it. Tor – short for The Onion Router – is software that enables people to browse the internet anonymously. It makes users’ activities more difficult to monitor and trace back to the original source by intermingling their traffic with the traffic of other Tor users.
“Some of these dark web marketplaces also sell non-illegal stuff,” Newman said. “There’s nothing illegal about going to those sites and looking at what they have.”
In countries where the government restricts access to specific websites and social media networks, the dark web can help evade censorship.
Tor was developed in the 1990s with the purpose of protecting U.S. intelligence communications online. Military and law enforcement agencies use Tor and the dark web to keep online activities hidden from the public.
Newman said many people purchasing items from online black markets often use Bitcoin – a type of digital currency – to avoid having their identity stolen.
Illicit drugs are among the most sought-after items on the dark web. A gram of crack cocaine sells for $125 on the online marketplace Peoples Drug Store; a gram of heroin costs $180.
The illegal merchandise is then shipped directly to a person’s house, post office box or elsewhere.
“These items are sometimes shipped through several different people before it arrives at its final destination to obscure who it belongs to and where it’s going,” Newman said.
The drugs or other illegal items are packaged to look inconspicuous in the mail.
“You might get a package that looks like porcelain dolls,” Newman said.
He said some people also use the dark web for peer-to-peer networking like any other social media website, where they can arrange to meet in person to exchange illegal merchandise without the fear of being busted by law enforcement.
Identity theft and the sale or trade of child pornography are some of the most common crimes committed by La Plata County residents on the dark web, Beyer said.
He recalled one time when a man purchased child porn off the dark web and had it mailed to his house in the form of CDs and DVDs.
Newman said stolen IDs, bank account information and Social Security numbers are frequently sold on the dark web, and often they are as cheap as $50.
He said a local man was arrested about two years ago for buying a stolen ID on the dark web and using it to get a loan to purchase a car in Alabama.
He then tried to sell the car on Craigslist for about $20,000.
Newman said the man was arrested after a potential buyer tipped off police to the situation.
“The title looked very suspicious,” he said. “The buyer ended up contacting us because there were a lot of red flags.”