Darknet Policing at the Web Science Conference 2018

Written by Robert Thorburn

The 2018 Web Science conference, hosted by the Vrije Universitieit Amsterdam, not only featured the broad range of subjects one would expect from an inherently interdisciplinary field but also had a couple of surprises. In addition to the much anticipated Turing lecture by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, there were two further keynote sessions covering ‘The Best of WesbSci18 Papers’ and ‘The Future of Semantics on The Web’.

The first day of the conference, held on Sunday the 27th of May, followed a different path to the three primary days by having no keynote session and instead presenting 6 full or half day tracks on a set topic. The format of the tracks was varied, including some papers, panel discussions and presentations, but crucially also including industry practitioners. Prominently, the full day track on ‘The Evolution of The Darknet’ had participants from the Dutch police’s Dark Wet Team, the Dutch tax authority’s Financial Advanced Cyber Team and the UK National Crime Agency’s Dark Web Intelligence Unit. Bringing a diverse set of skills and experiences to the discussion, the participation of these practitioners massively enriched the discussion and provided the largely academic audience with unique insights into the practical realities of policing on the Darknet.

The subject matter presented during this track also ran the entire gambit from the Dutch police’s ‘Knock and Talk’ approach to minor offences, often dispensing justice in the form of embracement and a potential fine, through to the UK National Crime Agency’s operations against some of the most horrific online offenders. Interestingly though, a couple of common threads wove through the entire day’s discussions. Most prevalent was the need for an integrated approach between law enforcement agencies, the need for data sharing and use of software tools to significantly lessen the workload. On the latter count, the UK National Crime Agency’s in-house developed tools were particularly impressive.

One further standout point for the day was the high-level discussion around crypto currencies.  Well informed and generally positive on the use of and growth of crypto currencies, the Dutch tax authority’s Financial Advanced Cyber Team pointed out a couple of clear indicators of when fraudulent activity is indeed taking place. These generally included unnecessary transactions, transactions conducted at a significant premium and transactions that serve no purpose other than obfuscation. A prime example of the latter being the use of mixer services which are regarded by the Dutch authority as inherently suspicious.

Practitioners and academics engaging in such a nuanced discussion on a highly technical issue is one of the core advantages of a fundamentally interdisciplinary field such as Web Science. The 2018 conference set a high bar in this regard, but there is as always the opportunity to take things further. Hopefully, the 2019 conference will build on this basis and include practitioners from more fields. Either way, it is sure to be another resounding success.

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