12/28/2014

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Diving deep into the world of the Dark Web

Diving deep into the world of the Dark Web

Ecstasy, pot, heroin, and powerful prescription medication are packaged for sale and sent from all across the world in a dark place that can only be found in a dark way.

Paul Ferguson sits in front of a computer connected to the online marketplace Silk Road. He is Vice President of threat intelligence of Internet security company IID based in Tacoma. He is using a specialized program to dig deep into the "Dark Web."

"Basically I can surf anonymously and no one knows where I'm located or who I am," Ferguson said.

He is using the program Tor, shorthand for "The Onion Router," a program that masks IP addresses of computers. It was originally used by freedom fighters and dissidents in totalitarian countries. But Tor is essentially the only way to access the Dark Web, a series of websites that are hidden from regular browsers and search engines.

Ferguson explains that Tor works like a giant game of telephone, throwing law enforcement off the scent by bouncing your computer connection all around the world.

"To Seattle, to the Netherlands, to Germany, to France, and basically to China," he said.

Tor can often lead users down the rabbit hole toward Silk Road. It is a sprawling online marketplace like Craigslist, eBay and an open air drug market all in one.

"So there are some very serious criminal activity happening with some of these websites," Ferguson said.

Simple searches can lead to forged documents, high quality cocaine, pirated movies and music, and more -- and it's tough to stop.

"The technology is forever evolving. It changes on a daily basis," said DEA special agent Douglas James. He and his team track online drug pharmacies. They aren't usually as hidden as Silk Road, but potentially as dangerous and definitely just as illegal.

"They'll use any and every means necessary to disguise their illicit product so they can continue to peddle their poison because ultimately it's about making money," James said.

Last month, 40-year-old Steven Sadler of Bellevue was charged with using Silk Road to sell and send drugs through the mail. Court records allege that Sadler's sales were discovered after drug-sniffing dogs found his packages.

Sadler was done in because of a dog's nose, but sniffing out sellers online is tougher.

Because the computer connections are bouncing all over the world, the anonymous trail of crumbs crosses oceans, the international dateline and requires help from foreign governments, which is not easy.

"The rules of evidence and handling of evidence and processing of evidence are different in other countries than here in the United States," James said.

Silk Road was taken down last month and the FBI arrested who it claims is the leader. The government thought it struck a big blow, but the site was back up three weeks later humming away on servers somewhere hidden from prying eyes.

"It's like cockroaches. Even if you arrest two or three guys behind it, it seems like three or four or five more pop up in Eastern Europe," Ferguson said.

The prices on Silk Road and other sites aren't in Euros or dollars, but Bitcoins, a newer electronic online currency that's traded like the stock market. Prices rise and fall by the minute.

"It's extraordinarily well thought out," Ferguson said  Bitcoins are nearly untraceable and anonymous, making them the coin of the realm of the Dark Web. Special agent James says the battle will go on, fighting the tech-saavy drug sellers but hard truths are part of the job.

"Unfortunately here in the United States, we have an insatiable appetite for drugs," James said.

And a web of darkness where nearly anything is a click away.

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