My last post gave an overview of the problems law enforcement agencies face in investigating and apprehending criminals as the latter increasingly make use of encrypted communications and so-called “Dark Nets.” A great deal of tension exists between law enforcement’s need to solve crimes and the legitimate worry of citizens losing civil liberties in the process.
However, there is one crime all of us wish we could stop, and that’s child sexual abuse and exploitation. The damage it inflicts on its victims and on our society as a whole is incalculable, and I sense I’m not the only one who’s had fantasies of extracting such evil from our world. Meanwhile, the sorts of people who subject kids to such abuse and then propagate images of this barbarity have leveraged the Internet from its inception. Not surprisingly, Dark Nets have become an increasingly popular means of sharing child pornography.
Dr. Joshua I. James, who I quoted last week, wrote a post in response to a BBC article titled Dark net ‘used by tens of thousands of paedophiles that ran back in June. In it, reporter Angus Crawford describes how pedophiles use Tor Browser to access child pornography:
It allows people to use Tor, an “onion-routing” system which makes a PC’s net address untraceable by bouncing the encrypted data it sends through several randomly selected computer servers on a volunteer network – each of which removes a level of encryption – before it reaches its destination.
There are also many hidden sites on the network ending in the .onion suffix, which cannot be found using Google or other regular search engines.
James digs a little deeper into how dark nets work, as well as how clients like Freenet take encryption and detection even further:
[Freenet] will allocate a part of your hard drive to store data (also encrypted). If every computer on the network gives a small part of their hard drive space, then the network has a lot of distributed storage [that] can only be accessed if you are inside the encrypted network. This means that people can host blogs, web pages… basically any service they want on this encrypted space. The data will be spread across many computers in many different countries, none of which will know exactly what information they are sharing on this allocated space (since they cannot access it themselves).
So what challenges must law enforcement overcome to root out pedophiles? James focuses on two in particular:
1. Cyber crime investigation is still a new field with a high learning curve.
And it isn’t enough that it’s “new,” although it is, relatively speaking. Police departments are faced with a plethora of cyber-based crimes, in addition to the old-fashioned type, and they lack the resources to focus in on all the different areas. Moreover, most law enforcement professionals expand their knowledge in a given area “only when the amount of cases requiring new knowledge get past a certain threshold,” James says.
James believes that Dark Nets in particular are too new and complex for your average police department to invest in, although he does note that larger government organizations are starting to throw resources and manpower into this problem, information that should eventually trickle down to smaller, less sophisticated agencies.
2. Law enforcement agencies lack the jurisdictional power to handle and solve multi-national crimes.
Even if the majority of pedophiles engaged in sharing and downloading child porn are concentrated in a single city or country, chances are that the networks being used are dispersed across multiple computers, located in different countries. And with Dark Net setups, it’s entirely possible that someone using a Dark Net to fight genocide against a totalitarian regime may unknowingly house images of child porn on, say, Freenet’s encrypted space on their computer.
Police, at most, have jurisdiction only at a national level. Since all governments have budgets, they don’t usually investigate other countries’ criminals (unless there is some benefit). Since it is difficult to establish where a criminal on a dark net is located, they take a risk of investigating thousands of people that are not in their country, not a citizen, etc, etc (investigation dead-end). This implies not only a waste of time, but a waste of resources – including taxpayer money. Since taxpayers usually want a visible ‘return on investment’, many forces think it is better to go after the easy cases that can make quick headlines and better statistics.
So what to do? Ultimately, James believes it will have to come down to addressing the social problems that lead to the exploitation of children, which is darker and significantly more challenging than any Dark Net could be.
Photo credit: Stux via Pixabay