UK gov't tackles Dark Web with new cybercrime unit

A focus on stamping out child pornography has led law enforcement to launch a Dark Web criminal crackdown.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

The UK government has launched a dedicated cybercrime unit given the task of tackling serious crime rings and the sexual abuse of children online.

The Dark Web is a tiny area of the Deep Web -- a hidden area of the Internet which is not indexed by search engines -- used to conduct illegal activity as well as more legitimate purposes such as activism. In order to visit certain websites, visitors must find the correct .onion address while using the surveillance-busting Tor browser.

There are online marketplaces and forums selling everything from drugs to fake or stolen passports and weaponry, but unfortunately due to the Dark Web's concealed nature, it can also act as a place to find illegal pornography, such as child exploitation.

Now, UK law enforcement hopes to bring the Dark Web out of the shadows.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) and UK intelligence outfit GCHQ are working together through the new unit, dubbed the Joint Operations Cell (JOC), according to a press release issued by the NCA.

Launched last week, the JOC will bring together officers from both agencies to focus on child pornography and abuse through online sources.

The department was first announced at the We Protect Children Online Global Summit in December 2014. At the time, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said GCHQ will provide the technical expertise while the NCA will loan investigators able to analyse child abuse images found through the Dark Web.

A new £50m child protection fund will also be established to help victims of child abuse and exploitation.

See also: 10 things you didn't know about the Dark Web

NCA Director General Keith Bristow said:

"The explosion in online communication channels has brought huge benefits for society. It has also significantly expanded the means by which criminals can share information, plan crimes including the sexual exploitation of children, and target victims.

The JOC is a genuinely innovative development, using the best of our respective agencies' skills to tackle the most complex cases and the most dangerous offenders online."

However, the JOC will not focus exclusively on child abuse. GCHQ Director Robert Hannigan said the unit will also aim to "identify and stop serious criminals," which could potentially include drug dealers, traders of illegal goods such as counterfeit documents, stolen financial data and weaponry -- all found in abundance in Dark Web marketplaces.

In September, security firm Trend Micro said personally identifiable information (PII), such as addresses, dates of birth and Social Security numbers -- all highly useful when committing identity theft -- is sold for as little as a dollar online.

10 things you didn't know about the Dark Web

Read on: Top picks

Editorial standards