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05 July 2017

What is the dark web? A sinister playground for criminals

The “dark web” was created for government spies but has become a sinister playground for criminals and dodgy dealings.

THE “dark web” was created for government spies but has become a sinister playground for criminals and dodgy dealings.

It’s a dimension in cyber space where child pornography, illegal drug trades and a black market for guns and human organs thrive. It is also used for hiding online activity related to finance, extremism, arms, hacking, abuse and fraud.

Subsequently, it’s also a place where the private details of many victims of identity theft — including Australians — turn up for sale.

The dark web is a network of untraceable online activity and websites on the internet. The pages can’t be found using search engines. Users need specific software, configurations or authorisation to access the dark web. It’s a strategy often used by people who want to hide their web activity. But it’s not fool proof, with police investigators often hacking their way into the sites, and tracking down perpetrators. Authorities have also been known to compromise the site by distributing malware and viruses to users.

The federal government has this week contacted “dozens” of Australians whose Medicare card numbers were illegally sold on the dark web.

It’s believed someone breached the security surrounding Medicare details, potentially exposing Australians to fraud.

Federal police and cyber security authorities are now investigating the “traditional criminal activity”, which was revealed after The Guardian Online website detailed how one of its own reporters was able to buy his Medicare card number from a darknet trader for less than $30.

A darknet trader is reportedly illegally selling the Medicare details of any Australian on request over the dark web, raising concerns that the health agency may be seriously compromised. Picture: AAP / Mick Tsikas.

A darknet trader is reportedly illegally selling the Medicare details of any Australian on request over the dark web, raising concerns that the health agency may be seriously compromised. Picture: AAP / Mick Tsikas.Source:AAP

The dark web is sinister playground for criminals and dodgy dealings. Picture: iStock

The dark web is sinister playground for criminals and dodgy dealings. Picture: iStockSource:Supplied

It comes after a man was charged last Friday following a joint NSW and Australian Federal Police investigation into an illicit drug supply operation on the dark web allegedly operating out of Sydney.

Search warrants at properties at Tempe in Sydney’s southwest and Wolli Creek in the south resulted in the arrest of a 43-year-old man and the seizure of cocaine, MDMA, magic mushrooms, more than $12,000 cash, drug paraphernalia and laptops with sophisticated hardware and software encryption.

The man was charged with eight counts of drug supply, dealing with property proceeds of crime, and supply of prohibited drugs on an ongoing basis and was refused bail to appear in Newtown Local Court.

Police will allege the man has been taking orders for prohibited drugs online and supplying the orders via post for at least two years.

The dark web was originally created by the US government to allow spies to exchange information anonymously.

US military researchers developed the technology, known as Tor (The Onion Router), and released it into the public domain. The intention was to make it harder for hackers

to identify government messages between spies by throwing thousands of other users and content into the mix. Tor now hosts an estimated 30,000 hidden sites.

It’s called The Onion Router because it uses the technique of onion routing — making websites anonymous through layers of encryption.

Associate Director Security at Lancaster University Daniel Prince explained how it all works.

So just for a minute imagine that the whole internet is a forest — a vast expanse of luscious green as far as the eye can see. And in the forest are well worn paths — to get from A to B,” Mr Prince wrote in an article on The Conversation to explain the concept.

“Think of these paths as popular search engines — like Google — allowing you as the user the option to essentially see the wood from the trees and be connected. But away from these paths — and away from Google — the trees of the forest mask your vision.

“Off the paths it is almost impossible to find anything, unless you know what you’re looking for, so it feels a bit like a treasure hunt. Because really the only way to find anything in this vast forest is to be told where to look.

“This is how the dark web works, and it is essentially the name given to all the hidden places on the internet.

“Just like the forest, the dark web hides things well. It hides actions and it hides identities. The dark web also prevents people from knowing who you are, what you are doing and where you are doing it.”

But it does have some positive uses. The dark web can be used to avoid a national firewall, like the one in China, where users are normally blocked from accessing sites including Facebook.

The infamous site WikiLeaks that allows whistleblowers to anonymously upload classified information to the press is hosted on the dark web.

megan.palin@news.com.au

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