The dark web is not a modern concept. In 1969, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) student sent the first electronic message using a computer and the ARPANET system, a predecessor to the modern Internet. Soon after that, Internet users created covert networks or dark nets, using the ARPANET system; and in the early 1970s, the first e-commerce transaction took place between university students. It was a drug deal. The network allowed students to keep their dealings secret and undetected.
Throughout the 1980s, with computers becoming more and more available for personal purchases, worries about storing data increased and data havens emerged as possible solutions. In the 1990s, the World Wide Web became popular and new technologies were introduced, such as the peer-to-peer transmission of data using the Internet, mostly for compressed music. Also, the ‘Onion routing’, an online communication system first developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory to protect military intelligence, saw light.
In the early 2000s, the Freenet software was launched, a peer-to-peer platform that allows uncensored online communication. In late 2002, an early version of The Onion Router (TOR), which anonymizes the IP address of its downloader, was released by the USA Naval Research Laboratory. Today, TOR is the most popular software used to access the dark web.
In 2009, the untraceable cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was first introduced. The anonymity of Bitcoin made it a very attractive tool for online criminal activity. The online currency would become an important component of darknet transactions. In 2011, the first darknet market, Silk Road, was launched. An exposé229 published that same year compared the market to Amazon.com but for drugs, one that "makes buying and selling illegal drugs as easy as buying used electronics." Within days, the value of Bitcoin surged. Around this period, publications started better differentiating between the dark and deep web. This same year also witnessed the emergence of rival cryptocurrencies, such as Namecoin and Litecoin. In 2013, following long-term investigations, the FBI shut down Silk Road and arrested its alleged administrator, Ross William Ulbricht, also known as Dread Pirate Roberts. Between 2011 and 2013, it is reported that the site made more than USD 1.2 billion in sales. During this same year, Bitcoin prices crashed from around USD 1000 to almost USD 300.
Following the dismantling of the marketplace, several others emerged such as Silk Road 2.0, with some even surpassing Silk Road in size, including Evolution and Agora markets. By 2014, 10 percent of retailers were operating across several marketplaces at the same time. In that same year, Operation ONYMOUS seized several darknet markets, including the Silk Road 2.0. What followed was a period of instability among darknet markets, sometimes caused by external factors such as DDoS attacks and law enforcement; and some by internal factors such as fluctuations in the numbers of retailers, measures to improve security, and existing scams. The Bitcoin market also witnessed exit scams. The emergence of new marketplaces on the darknet was associated with a growing demand for cryptocurrency and its value reached USD 10 000 by 2017, with the market value growing from USD 11 billion to USD 300 billion. By 2018, countries around the world were developing cryptocurrency regulations in an attempt to control their growing market.
How to access the dark web?
Accessing the dark web requires the user to follow essential steps to ensure their security and protection online. These steps will be elaborated on in the following section. The first two steps, which deal with the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) and TOR, will later be examined in light of available information on the use of these tools on the African continent. Before accessing the dark web, users likely refer to the detailed guidelines on how to access the dark web securely, which can be found on the surface web. Most of these guidelines are drafted in an easy-to-understand and user-friendly manner, most likely by experienced deep and dark web users.
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Africa and Dark Web Crimes
Multiple INTERPOL and EUROPOL reports have predicted the shift in certain crime areas in Africa from the surface to the dark web, where undergrounds will probably be established and grow, as law enforcement intensifies its enforcement on the surface web.
According to Google Trends, the topic ‘dark web’ has gained popularity between 2016 and 2019. The search has steadily increased over the past four years across the continent which could suggest an increased interest in this dark side of the Internet in some African countries. However, confirmed interaction or illegal engagement on the dark web related to the continent requires further investigation. In a 2018 report, The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GIATOC) suggests that wildlife trafficking, which is among the most spread transnational organized crime in Africa, is taking place on the surface web, such as on open listings, e-commerce websites, etc. and the deep web, including private messaging apps and closed groups.
The Trend Micro examined the Middle East and North Africa underground, and in association with INTERPOL, studied the Western African underground. Trend Micro describes the Middle East and North Africa underground as a melting pot for cybercrime, culture, and ideology, where culture and ideology make the market unique and highly influence the services and products offered.
Use of Cryptocurrency for Crime related activities
The surge of cryptocurrency in Africa is possibly linked to the increased use of cryptocurrencies for illegal purposes on the continent. Since the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, emerged in 2009, the value of the cryptocurrency has skyrocketed. A software developer with the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto introduced the electronic payment system, a decentralized currency that requires very low transaction fees. Since then, several other cryptocurrencies have emerged with many of them being sold at a cheaper rate, such as Litecoin and Ethereum. Cryptocurrency allows the user to transfer money anonymously and securely. The anonymity aspect of this currency is further enhanced through the blockchain system, the online ledger of Bitcoin transactions, which records cryptocurrency transactions and secures the process.
Cryptocurrency is used for fraud and other crime-related activities such as sextortion.
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