Into the Wild

Misha Glenny

  • The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett
    Heinemann, 303 pp, £20.00, August 2014, ISBN 978 0 434 02315 8

My first encounter with the dark net was in Rio de Janeiro in 2006. I was interviewing a public prosecutor about the changing nature of organised crime in Brazil. His office was in Barra, an affluent residential area in the west of the city, where one would expect prosecutors to be mostly occupied with crimes against property. He pulled out a file and explained, despairingly, that he had been working on the case for more than a year. ‘This business is just growing and growing,’ he said, ‘and it’s really hard to do anything about it.’ He was investigating a wealthy architect who had been kidnapping and buying children from Rio’s favelas and using them for pornographic photo shoots and movies. He showed me two black and white photographs which had been downloaded from the internet. One was of an eight-year-old girl being raped; the other was of a baby less than a year old covered in semen. ‘This material is spreading like lightning over the web,’ he said, ‘but it’s almost impossible to do anything because they protect their identities so assiduously – and most of this is distributed on the dark side of the internet, where it’s very difficult to track.’

There were additional difficulties in this case: the architect was well connected in Rio society, which confers a thick layer of protection against investigation. Police find that even tracking down the producers, distributors and consumers of child pornography is challenging enough, let alone successfully prosecuting them. I learned one of the reasons for this in 2009 in a motel near Cologne. Every year Europol invites senior police officers to a three-day seminar on the basics of cyber policing. Most child pornography, they explained, isn’t sold openly. Instead members of dedicated forums exchange material for payment in kind: new photos, videos and, unbelievably, live streams of children being abused, sometimes with the active collusion of one or both of the parents. During the seminar, a member of the Irish Gardaí’s Child Protection Unit told me that officers were permitted to work on such cases for a maximum period of three years for fear that longer exposure to the material they had to investigate might lead to permanent psychological damage.

That is, of course, if they manage to find the websites and networks involved. Most forums responsible for the exchange of child pornography have high levels of digital security. The techniques used range from layering – in which a user has to pass through various websites in a defined sequence to get to the illegal material – to powerful verification techniques, and often the encryption of website addresses. Anyone who wants to join has to spend considerable time and effort navigating these websites or talking to people who are already involved in order to be let into the circle of trust. If the site is protected by an encrypted url, users can only enter if the site administrators decide they are not a security risk: police officers masquerading as consumers, for example. These days entry will often be denied unless the individual is able to add a substantial collection of material to the forum’s database – a mechanism that has led to a significant increase in the amount of material in circulation. In The Dark Net, Jamie Bartlett quotes the US General Accounting Office as reporting in 1983 that ‘as a result of the decline in commercial child pornography, the principal Federal agencies … do not consider child pornography a high priority.’ In 1990, the NSPCC in Britain estimated that ‘there were seven thousand known images of child pornography in circulation. Because it was so hard to come by, the numbers accessing it were vanishingly small.’ What a difference a couple of decades makes. ‘In 2011,’ Bartlett continues, ‘law enforcement authorities in the US turned over 22 million images and videos of child pornography to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.’

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[*] Mariana Mazzucato has written about this in The Entrepreneurial State (2013).

[†] I use the gender deliberately: the proportion of those involved in illegal activities on the web who are women is estimated to be about 4 or 5 per cent; the corresponding proportion for conventional crime is 15-20 per cent.