The Internet, they say, is like an iceberg — much of it is hidden underneath. While for many of us, the visible part of the internet itself is complicated to deal with, there are large swathes of the web that does not easily show itself up, but thrives in grey alleys, shadowy corners and hidden nooks.
Bengaluru city police are slowly gaining expertise in plumbing the depths of the abyss that this dark web is. After all, they busted a drug racket with roots in the dark web in January this year and made the country’s largest-ever drug haul — 10,000 strips of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) valued at over Rs 1.30 crore. This was twice the amount of the narcotic seized by the Bengaluru Police between 2018 and 2020. The bust was the result of months of decoding and use of technology to get to the source and some good-old dogged pursuit of physical leads to catch the culprits.
According to top sources in the intelligence wing of the police department, illegal activities and illegal trade are growing on the dark web and tracking them and pursuing the matter to their logical end is proving to be a tough challenge.
Providing clarity on the very definition and what it is used for, a senior officer with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Karnataka police told DHoS, “The deep web is used to store confidential information related to government organisations or defence. The dark web is where people do business anonymously and among the many businesses that thrive here are drug trafficking, child pornography, abusive material exchange and weapon trading. Dark web is also used for legal purposes. These three layers resemble the layers of the deep blue sea.” The officer explains that the dark web, most crucially, offers anonymity. “Users can communicate and conduct business anonymously without divulging information such as user location, IP address, MAC address and so on. The encrypted entry points and pathways allow user searches and actions to be anonymous and leave no trace. This is why it is among the most sought-after spaces for trade, especially the illegal kind.”
Tracking ain’t easy
A source in the intelligence department, who is continuously tracking activities on the dark web, says it is easier to get people’s IP address on the surface web, but near impossible to track the ID when on the dark web because it is designed to operate through an anonymising browser called The Onion Ring (TOR) where the data is encrypted like layers in an onion.
“There are hundreds of messages that are hidden in each layer. This encryption keeps the privacy of the users safe. You can never get the whole message just by looking at a single layer or a couple of layers together; the messages are carefully encrypted in every layer and finally assembled only at the destination. The dark web is slow because messages take time to traverse the extra distance, thanks to the layering and encryption,” explains Deputy Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru (South) Harish Pandey, who busted a big drug racket on the dark web. He adds, “Due to its high degree of anonymity and inability to trace an IP address, dark web remains the most favoured place for criminals to pursue their illegal activities such as drug trafficking, dealing in the trade of pistols, guns, firearms, etc. While tracing the crime, we try to bring the dark web user on to the clear web.” Referring to the record haul of LSD, Pandey says, “The Bengaluru Police first got wind of large supplies of LSD being brought into the city after Rahul Tulasiram, a 28-year-old businessman held for selling the narcotic, confessed that he was receiving it from an unknown source in Tamil Nadu. This is what led the cops to trace the dealings back to the dark web. When we were tracking the LSD case (on the dark web), we touched base with the peddler and we had to make sure that he felt confident talking to us and trusted us enough to walk into our trap. While we continued our conversation with him, we kept a watch over many post offices/courier centres in a city in TN from where the consignments were suspected of being dispatched. Through dogged physical surveillance, we finally tracked Balaji C (48), who was allegedly procuring the LSD on the dark net from Europe and selling it to his cronies in India.”
Pandey says that if the accused had been a network of persons operating from multiple locations and destinations, it would have taken a much larger effort to catch them. “We did some dogged physical work to trace and nab him. This proved that it is not impossible to trace this sort of crime, so long as we stick to basic principles of detection and surveillance.”
In another sensational case, the Central Crime Branch (CCB), Bengaluru busted the drug racket of a gang linked to notorious hacker Srikrishna Ramesh alias Sriki. “The hacker used cryptocurrency to buy drugs from the dark web. It was a well-oiled network and most of the gang members were proficient hackers. It was an eye-opener for us,” says a senior officer who investigated the case. He says, in most cases, students are used as peddlers. “They make easy money and the stuff is delivered without the drug racket being interrupted.”
Crime across borders
M N Anucheth, DCP, Bengaluru Central, who was seen prominently in the recently released OTT series, ‘Crime Stories: India Detectives’, explains, “The guys who use the dark web are technically smart. The majority of the crimes that we see are buying and selling of illegal substances. Some people also use it for the illegal trade of ivory and tiger skin. But the most frequently traded items (sometimes manufactured too) are drugs, with LSD and Ecstasy topping the list.”
He points out that crime growing on the dark web is a cause of concern in the real world because anything and everything is available on it “You get to buy anything you want, including a Sukhoi. We fear that sometimes abduction or even a supari can be given on the dark web. We don’t know to what extent they can go. The unrestricted access to these sites makes it even more worrisome. The dark web primarily operates on the principle of secrecy and it is difficult to find out. Crime across borders becomes easy too.”
Another senior officer in the police department says that they have started training some of their own staff in ethical hacking. “Getting trained in the technical know-how and familiarising ourselves with the lingo used to communicate on the dark web will help crack cases fast. There are code words used for substances and items sold and comprehending them is another task in itself. Tracing crime requires a mix of social engineering and technology. There are various methods used by us to understand the social milieu of the dark web. We sometimes smuggle our own people in to trace their activities. The only way to nab the criminals is when there is physical movement of goods because that’s when the anonymity is broken and one can easily begin tracking,” he says. The staff are also being trained in phython programming, which is useful in decoding certain encryptions on the dark web.
Deep fake: A growing evil
Deep fake and deep voice are two other evils that investigating officers are struggling to combat and control on the dark web. Deep fake is used to manipulate images and deep voice to mimic voices.
Anucheth recalls that there was a recent case in Dubai where the frauds made off with 70 million dollars by mimicking the voice of a bank manager who was to sanction the money. “The caller on the other end recognised his voice and sanctioned the amount. The voice was synthesised. Anything is possible using deep fake. You can create a person out of thin air, give him or her a face that you have never seen before and create a bank account just using a deep voice. But when we investigate, we realise that the person never really existed,” he says.
Another officer says that the software used to create a deep fake is usually bought on the dark web. “There are people who specialise in creating deep fakes where an ordinary picture of a man or woman can metamorphose into a nude person and these pictures are used for sextortion, blackmailing and sexual exploitation,” he adds. The police feel that it is better to regulate the activities on the dark web rather than completely ban it because banning anything is always counter-productive. Banning something creates a fake supply deficit, they contend.
What does the law say?
Dr T P Vipin, advocate and criminologist, points out that accessing the dark web is legal in India. “Using the dark web for illegal purposes may put one’s life at stake. But, gathering legal evidence on dark web activity is comparatively difficult though not impossible. This complex scenario calls for amending the Information Technology Act and Evidence Act.”
He says that investigation into these technologies is challenging due to the complex technical environment and thus the law enforcement agencies must be equipped with cutting-edge technology to deal with dark web associated crimes. “The investigation team needs to develop the ability to identify the suspect, investigate, preserve the evidence and present it before the court to prove the case beyond doubt,” he adds.
Anucheth, who has been investigating and tracing crimes on the dark web with keen interest, feels there must be a law that covers the internet of things, which includes artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain technology. “There are regular cyber laws and no separate laws to deal with the dark web because it is considered legal to use it. It is open to all but what purpose you use it for is what is to be regulated and looked into,” he adds.
The crypto angle
While Alpha Bay and Silk Road (till it was raided and shut down) were the prominent market places, others that are slowly gaining ground are Evolution and Jokerstash, which mostly deal in selling stolen credit card data, says Kapil Gupta, director, Volon Cyber Security, who helps the investigating officers crack cases. “There’s also Hydra and AgoraMarket, which mostly deal in drugs and digital products. Others have sub-sections for specific categories,” explains Kapil.
He says most transactions on the dark web are done using cryptocurrency. “People can procure and receive in their crypto wallet depending on the laws applicable in different countries. India does not allow crypto transactions; so it’s illegal.”
Senior officers investigating cases involving the dark web say that drugs (which is the most traded item on dark web) are sold and bought in two prominent spaces, Alpha Bay and Silk Road. Alpha Bay is 10 times the size of its predecessor Silk Road, which was busted in October 2013. “You get drugs of all kinds ranging from cannabis to ecstasy to stimulants and other narcotic substances. You also get banned books, computer equipment and skimmers,” explains the officer. He says the offenders use button phones for communication and leave no trail. “They destroy the SIM card after the transaction is done. Flesh trade and the lure of making fast bucks in a short span is used as a bait to keep the business alive,” adds the officer.
What is the dark web?
Dark web is a technology network within the internet that can only be accessed with specific software, configurations or unique customised communication protocols. There are primarily three layers to the internet — the surface web, the deep web and the dark web. What we all generally use is called the surface web where things are accessible on regular browsers.
When did the dark web emerge?
According to Dr Vipin, who has been studying the dark web, it first emerged in 2009, but its history is rooted in the 1960’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), used by the US intelligence community (IC) and military during the cold war. “When you visualise the entire web, it resembles an iceberg. Imagine the open web as the top portion; one that can be accessed using standard web search engines. The deep web rests below the top surface of the iceberg and includes databases and intranets belonging to private individuals as well as certain public entities,” explains Dr Vipin. It was coined to designate network isolation for academic and government projects and is relatively difficult for law enforcement to crack down because the user identity cannot be tracked on the dark web.
A question of control
*India does not have stringent controls to restrict the use of VPNs.
*Iraq, Turkmenistan, and Belarus have banned the use of VPN services.
*UAE, Russia, and China have restricted access to VPN services. Some others are controlled by the government.
What is illegal?
*Child pornography is a serious crime punishable under Section 67(B) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and Section 14 and 15 of POCSO Act, 2012. These deal with crimes of pornography related to children. Section 372 and 373 of the Indian Penal Code deals with the buying and selling of girls for prostitution.
*Under Section 24 of the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, those engaging with narcotic drugs outside India are liable to be punished.
*Trading of illegal weapons and wildlife is considered a punishable act under the Indian Penal Code.