NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: cracking down on the dark web.
This is the part of the internet most people never see. And for that reason, the dark web is where buyers and sellers of opioids and other deadly illegal drugs come together.
Federal and state law enforcement officials are now racing to catch up with crypto criminals who seem always one step ahead.
WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has our story.
JIM HERY, REPORTER: On October 14th, 2016, Arkansas parents Will and Shannon Doerhoff were introduced to the horror of the dark web in a way that changed their lives forever.
Their 20-year old son William was dead from an overdose of illegal drugs he purchased over the Internet— delivered to a post office box. Will Doerhoff:
WILL DOERHOFF: It’s not really a pain that you feel. It’s like you don’t even know how to exist at that moment because everything that you’ve ever done in your entire life, the entire meaning of your life, which really is to protect your children, had just been taken from you.
William Doerhoff started out buying highly addictive drugs such as oxycontin over the dark web. But he progressed to an even more deadly opioid that led to an early— non-fatal— overdose in 20-15. When paramedics arrived— his mother Shannon first saw the grim evidence—
SHANNON DOERHOFF: I looked around and there was a little piece of foil on the bed and, you know, a little bitty plastic tube, and I’m like, ‘What is this?’ And they all look at me, you know, ‘It looks like heroin.’
Her son recovered and went through rehabilitation— but relapsed a year later.
The Doerhoff family’s experience is hardly unique. Nearly 65,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016 and the numbers are still rising. The Drug Enforcement Administration says four out of five heroin users start on opioid pills.
The dark web makes up about 5 percent of the internet— a sizeable space where crime flourishes. Cyber security expert Daniel Tobok explains the law enforcement challenge to Global News.
TOBOK: The dark web doesn’t get archived, and you can’t search for it a Google or a Yahoo or any other major search engine. Those websites are not archived, they don’t have any metadata associated to them, so they’re not searchable. It’s mainly used by criminals. It’s really when you want to be undetected and you want to be able to communicate anonymously.
Charles Cohen with the Indiana State Police Cyber Division says dark web drug site pages look just like those you might see on Amazon— but they’re selling lethal illegal drugs.
COHEN: We see not just heroin but other opioids ranging from fentanyl to carfentanil, opana and others that are being shipped with great regularity with the purchase happening in the dark web, the money transactions happen, the cryptocurrency, and the shipment is being concealed.
The FBI is trying to change that. It has managed to shutdown major dark web drug sites such as Silk Road and AlphaBay. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced the formation of a new unit called J-CODE— the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team.
SESSIONS: Dozens, dozens more special agents, intelligence analysts and professional staff to focus on this one issue. The J-CODE team will coordinate across the FBI offices around the world to target and disrupt the sale of synthetic opioids and other drugs on the dark net.
Law enforcement adheres to a philosophy that supply creates demand. J-CODE’s two goals follow that reasoning.
SESSIONS: Make more arrests of those who are selling these deadly substances online as well as shut down the marketplaces that these drug dealers use, and ultimately help us reduce addiction, overdoses, and death across the country.
That’s a tough task— given the anonymity dark web sites enjoy by bouncing around on hundreds—if not thousands—of servers around the world.
To access those sites— people buying illegal drugs and other banned items use a special browser called TOR that hides the buyer and seller’s identities.
Cyber security expert Jeff Holtmeier trains law enforcement on ways to crack into the dark web. He says most drug enforcement agents aren’t even familiar with TOR. That’s why he thinks this front in the opioid battle is only beginning.
HOLTMEIER: When you go on the dark web and you’re anonymous and you’re using cryptocurrency to buy, it’s extremely difficult for these folks to track them down, the buyer or the seller and it’s a real problem that law enforcement faces and there’s really no clear cut answer now.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.