Unmasking the Darkweb: The Hidden World of Illegal Wildlife Trade

Unmasking the Darkweb: The Hidden World of Illegal Wildlife Trade

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The darkweb refers to that portion of the internet that is hidden and inaccessible through regular search engines like Google. To access darkweb, special software like Tor (The Onion Router) is required which can be downloaded from from the website of Tor Project (https://www.torproject.org/download/). 

Various illicit activities like sale of drugs, weapons, counterfeit currencies, hitman services, stolen personal informations, credit card details, child pornography, wildlife contrabands etc. take place on various darkweb marketplaces. Wildlife trafickers on darkweb can operate without fear as it provides anonymity to its users and all communications & transactions on darkweb are encrypted.  With increasing crackdown of wildlife law enforcement on wildlife traffickers on surface web, it is expected that magnitude of illegal wildlife trade on darkweb will increase substantially in times to come.

                     Rhino Horn offered for sale on Darkweb Marketplace Silk Road 3.1

Wildlife law enforcement agencies encounter many challenges in clamping down on illegal wildlife trade on darkweb. Technological barrier is the major challenge. The darkweb operates on specialized networks like Tor which anonymizes wildlife traffickers' activities by routing all their communications and transactions through a circuitous route passing through different jurisdictions making it extremely difficult for the law enforcement authorities to track or identify the ventors or buyers of willdife contrabands on the darkweb. All transactions of wildlife contrabands on darkweb takes place in cryptocurrencies mainly bitcoins which are end to end encrypted transactions. This offers additional layer of anonymity making it harder to trace financial flows. Wildlife traffickers use Proton Mail for communication. Proton Mail provides end to end encrypted email service and doesn't store any details of its users as is stored by regular email service providers like Gmail or Yahoo Mail. This adds one more layer of anonymity for wildlife traffickers to operate on darkweb with a sense of impunity.

Following is an example of Tiger Baby being offered for sale on a darkweb hidden service: 

Source: Online wildlife traffickers operating within and beyond Europe (INTERPOL Report)

Due to technological barriers and additional layers of anonymity provided by darkweb as discussed above, law enforcement agencies need to equip themselves with the skillsets and technological & forensic tools to combat illegal wildlife trade on darkweb effectively. For capacity building of the law enforcement agencies to counter wildlife trafficking on the darkweb they may be trained on as follows:

  • Accessing and Patrolling the Darkweb: Wildlife law enforcement officials must be trained about the basic architecture of Darkweb, how to access it using special software like Tor, how to trace the darkweb marketplaces offering willdife contrabands for sale etc. On surface web social media sites, e-commerce sites etc. can be easily accessed by typing the name of the site using normal search eangines like Google, Bing etc. and then using key words posts related to illegal wildlife trade can be easily found. Unlike surface web sites, darknet marketplaces can be accessed only through Tor browser using unique URL of that marketplace. These URLs are in the form of alpha-numeric code ending with ".onion". The very first challenge for wildlife law enforcement is to identify the URLs of active darknet marketplaces as they keep disappearing and emerging with new names and URLs. Information about active darknet marketplaces  may be obtained by enforcement officials from the HiddenWiki.org (https://thehiddenwiki.org/).

  • Another challenge is to identify the darkweb marketplaces or pages which might be offering wildlife contrabands for sale. Wildlife law enforcement officials may use AHMIA search engine (https://ahmia.fi/) for identifying such hidden services on the Tor network by using code words like 'wildlife', 'ivory', 'rhino horn', 'tiger skin' etc.

  • Undercover Operations on the Darkweb: Wildlife crime investigators must be trained in conducting undercover operations on the darkweb to trace the vendors and buyers of wildlife contrabands without revealing their real identity. They should have skillsets to engage in undercover negotiations with the vendors on the Proton Mail ID provided by the vendors on the darkweb marketplace to elicit some identifiable informations of the vendors  or to set up one to one meeting with the vendor or their representative for discussing the modalities for supply of the big quantity of wildlife contrabands and payment mechanism etc. to track them down.
  • Running some key informations provided by Vendors on the Darkweb Marketplace on the Surface web: There may be a possibility that the darkweb vendor of wildlife contrabands may also have shared same key informations such as Proton Mail ID, his darkweb marketplace URL, his crypto wallet address, his Vender's ID on the darkweb marketplace, description of the wildlife contrabands, his PGP Key (used for encrypting the Shipping Address by the Buyers) etc. on the surface web i.e. on social media sites, online forums etc. also. As the surface web is not encrypted like darkweb, these informations on surface web may help law enforcement in tracking down the wildlife traffickers on the darkweb.
  • Leveraging Darkweb Monitoring Tools: Wildlife law enforcement agencies can gather crucial intelligence and track activities regarding illegal wildlife trade taking place on darkweb by harnessing darkweb monitoring tools. This tools can also help in analyzing historical data to identify trends & patterns of wildlife trafficking on darkweb. Such tools can also help in identifying high-risk individuals or groups that might be involved in illegal wildlife trade on darkweb by behaviour analysis and profiling of users on the darkweb.

  • Harnessing Crypto-Forensics Tools: Wildlife law enforcement officials must be trained in harnessing Blockchain Forensics Tools. Through these crypto-forensics tools wildlife crime investigators can trace and analyze cryptocurrency transactions related to illegal wildlife trade. This may help law enforcement in identifying and apprehending the wildlife traffickers operating on the darkweb marketplaces. Ciphertrace, Elliptic , Chainanalysis, TRM Labs etc. are some of the companies which offer Crypto-Forensics Tools for law enforcement agencies. (Disclaimer: I am not recommending any of the products offered by these companies. Wildlife law enforcement agencies may use any tool as per their policy and choice.Following is the screenshot of forensic analysis of a bitcoin address using one Crypto-Forensics Tool:
  • As can be seen from the above screenshot, a wildlife crime investigator can obtain many information from the  crypto wallet address of the vendor on the darkweb using crypto-forensics tool. These informations include all received & sent transactions, date & time of transactions, amount of cryptocurrency transacted, crypto wallet address of receiver & sender, whether said wallet address features in sanctioned list, geographical location through IP Address used for transaction, whether crypto transaction has taken place through crypto exchanges, current balance of the cryptocurrency lying in the wallet etc. All these informations gathered from crypto-wallet address of the wildlife trafficker operating on the darkweb may play significant role in tracking down the trafficker.
  • International Cooperation: As the darkweb/Tor network routes the communication through multiple jurisdictions and the darkweb vendors of wildlife contrabands and their buyers might also be located in different jurisdictions, collaboration amongst law enforcement agencies across borders becomes imperative to dismantle this hidden dark world of wildlife trafficking. For example, in April 2023, a drakweb site called Genesis Market was shut down in a multi-national operation code named "Operation Cookie Monster" in which law enforcement agencies from 17 countries participated. (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/4/6/genesis-market)

To conclude, combating wildlife trafficking on the darkweb is a very complex and multifaceted challenge for wildlife law enforcement agencies due to hidden nature of cyber underworld marketplaces that operate on darkweb. Though darkweb provides wildlife traffickers with anonymity and encryption, it is not totally immune to investigation. By leveraging innovative strategies and technologies such as undercover operations, international cooperations, darkweb monitoring tools & crypto-forensics tools etc. this clandestine criminal wildlife trafficking enterprise can be dismantled.

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Go to the profile of Christine
8 months ago

wonderful and very informative read

Go to the profile of Ussi Abuu Mnamengi
7 months ago

Excellent! Thank you for sharing