Revealing Research Exposes Business on the Dark Web

The study of business sometimes has a dark side.

Among the 2019-2020 recipients of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative Fund for Social Impact Research was Hamsa Bastani, Wharton assistant professor of operations, information and decisions, and Pia Ramchandani, a doctoral student in the same department. The women have been analyzing dark web data related to sex trafficking (human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation) to provide new insights into online sex-trafficking recruiting practices and, more broadly, illicit supply chains on online platforms. Specifically, they are collaborating with TellFinder Alliance, a a counter-human trafficking partner network company that provides a suite of tools for human trafficking investigators to search deep-web content and discover hidden connections in online commercial sex content.

Knowledge@Wharton High School spoke with Bastani, who develops novel machine learning algorithms for data-driven decision-making, to find out more details about the long-term research project. In the process, we discovered insights about the business side of the dark web. Here are six key takeaways from Bastani:

The dark web? Also known as the deep web, “this is part of the Internet that can only be accessed through specialized software. So, if you were to go on Google Chrome, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to access some of these pages. The Silk Road and some of these other web pages are what we would call the dark web. A lot of the stuff that happens online nowadays, especially if it’s illegal like human trafficking or stuff having to do with drugs, happens on the dark web, which helps the users remain anonymous and untraceable.”

The Wharton connection. “Traditionally, U.S. law enforcement like the Federal Bureau of Investigation had specific local or domain knowledge to follow suspicious perpetrators. Now with all these machine learning tools, TellFinder Alliance and these companies are trying to scale this up by getting a larger picture, by accessing the deep web. They’ve been looking at 80 or 90 websites and about 250 historical websites where a lot of this commercial sex activity happened, and they’ve built machine-learning predictors to try to identify which ads are related to more traditional escort services and which ones are related to actual sex trafficking that we should be concerned about. They brought us in to bring in a more operational perspective to see how these commercial sex web properties are actual supply chains, where they’re sourcing workers, and where they’re making those sales.”

Deep web discoveries. “Our research findings are preliminary. It seems like the ads are more consolidated than we might have thought. Certain phone numbers are associated with tens of thousands of these posts within a nine-month period. That suggests that it’s a very consolidated business. These individuals are not making posts in a distributed way, but it’s a very centralized procedure. We’ve seen some evidence that a lot of recruitment happens in the Midwest and a lot of sales are happening in coastal regions.”

Backpage. “Backpage was one of the major platforms on which these elicit transactions were happening, and the Trump administration took it down. The positive aspect is what the presidential administration was hoping for — that this will disrupt these supply chains and we’ll see a reduction in trafficking and violence against women. The negative effect is that these were known channels. Escorts knew how to navigate this platform and how to find people that might be relatively safe. Now they’re thrown in the dark and they’re more vulnerable and likely to be trafficked. FBI agents have been using this portal to go after certain perpetrators. Now that this portal is gone, that information is gone too. Part of what we’re looking at is how this disruption has helped or hurt violence against women. Since then, a lot of other websites have popped up and this whole industry has become fragmented or chaotic, which is not necessarily a good thing. Our preliminary results suggest that it had a bunch of unintended effects.”

Data, data, data. “We’re in a time period where you can make contributions towards these areas with increasingly better availability of data that are interesting from a more academic perspective. Dark web data gives you a very large scale. For example, in our data set from TellFinder, just in a nine-month period there are over a million ads that are being posted in each of these websites, especially the larger ones. This Is really the kind of setting where we want to apply machine learning techniques and use data-driven tools to see if we can help law enforcement… There are a lot of interesting machine learning questions. Usually in machine learning you assume that your data is generated using some independent process and then you try to build a model that predicts some outcomes. But here, the adversaries are generating the data because they’re posting the ads and then simultaneously trying to evade detection and then also reach their clients. That introduces some interesting dynamics into data collection and also how you want to train your models to get good detection rates. There are a lot of rich and interesting problems.”

Attention, future social responsibility managers. “I did my PhD at Stanford University and worked with the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. I started a collaboration with Global Fishing Watch where they were using remote sensing data and satellite data to track illicit behavior [with fishing vessels] on the ocean. If you’re a fisherman in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for months at a time, then often that paves the way to labor abuse and illegal fishing labor exploitation. This is an area with lack of transparency where people could get away with a whole bunch of things. Global Fishing Watch is a nonprofit that is specifically for companies to come in, look at the vessels they’re sourcing seafood from, and try to understand if the suppliers they’re purchasing from are trustworthy. So, we’ve looked at how you can improve corporate social responsibility (CSR) at companies using data-driven tools. When we talk to the CSR leads of companies, there’s a lot of resistance to adopting these data-driven tools. You might imagine that these CSR leads often aren’t trained in that sort of data expertise. Eventually, that’s where the future is. We’re not going to be able to have on-the-ground knowledge, especially as our supply chains become more and more global and distributed and there’s all this unauthorized behavior happening. We need to start relying more on these data-driven tools, in combination with domain knowledge where people are experts in their fields. People who are going into CSR or other types of areas need to start having more of an understanding of these tools, like taking some basic machine learning classes.”

Conversation Starters

What is the intersection here between business and social impact? Why is technology so fundamental, and what does that say about the growing importance of technology in the business world?

Is the dark web a business?

Why does Hamsa Bastani say, "We need to start relying more on data-driven tools, in combination with domain knowledge" to understand how industries operate?

6 thoughts on “Revealing Research Exposes Business on the Dark Web

  1. From the information in this article, it seems that the dark web is, in fact, a business, but an illegal one. It is very well organized and centralized which means that there is structure behind the dark web, and it is not just made up of loosely connected individuals. The dark web is also reliant on buying and selling products and services which is precisely the definition of a business. The increase in technology has enabled us to interpret the data coming from the dark web to stop such illegal activities. New tools help us stop human trafficking which has a social impact because now these people are able to escape their previous scary lives.

    1. Hi! I agree with you on the part where you mentioned “There is structure behind the dark web, and it’s not just made up of loosely connected people.” Indeed, dark web may see sketchy, but it also provides opportunities for individuals.

  2. The mannerisms of the dark web seem so simple to dilute, yet it is complicated to track a persons activities on the site. I popped onto this article because I was intrigued and never really knew how the dark web functioned and how the disgusting people who use it get away with it. I never really knew how a young man that has a background in coding java could create a network, The Silk Road, and generate a net worth of $28.5 million (thank god he is in jail now). It’s insane! I never really knew that creating a medium for businesses, even though they are illegal, can earn you a hefty amount of profit. I never knew that the dark web could be considered a business, until now. The “medium” is the future; the “medium” is technology. For this instance, technology has garnered billions of dollars in dark web profit. But what made The Silk Road so valuable is the technology that allowed “businessmen” to do transactions with incognito. Looking from a perspective of a “customer” in this situation, yes, it is the deception and mobility that the customer is looking for to carry on their transactions, and that is what The Silk Road provides with the java coded base encryption. As technology advances, it is fundamental for a businessman to pounce on the technology and toy around with it to further support one’s business. I mean look, a kid straight out of college made almost $30 million from knowing java making The Silk Road. I’m not saying make a dark web network, but use your technology for good. So I’m asking myself this question while writing this: why can’t you?

    1. Like you, Tyler, I didn’t quite understand how the dark web worked and read this article to satisfy my curiosity. I also was worse off since I didn’t even understand what the dark web is.

      There are so many things you can do on the internet, and millions of people go on it to do those many things. Almost everyone in the first world countries has access to this internet, and some people even treat the internet as their most beloved home or refuge. Of course, there are still always be trolls and cyberbullies that destroy the peaceful and harmonious environment. This description is the way I viewed the internet before reading this article. Naive, right? The internet is not something that can be so simply described. It is a complex and entangled web of traps and threats hiding underneath a seemingly harmless exterior. This article focused on illegal and unethical business practices on the dark web, practices one hundred times worse than the trolls I mentioned earlier. These businesses involve human and sex trafficking.

      Like you mentioned in your comment, the profit that comes out of these businesses is mind-boggling. This aspect of the dark web may tempt many capable young people to it, resulting in unspeakable consequences. It is very realistic but sad how many people are willing to abandon their morals for the sake of wealth. This can lead the situation to spiral more and more out of control. As written in the article, the hidden dark web businesses are so consolidated that even though authorities have uncovered major websites such as the Silk Road, there are still even more that are covered.

      Unfortunately, the search for these businesses on the dark web remains preliminary. The world needs to take further action to spare more innocent people from suffering the impacts of these human trafficking transactions. To do this, we need to rely on technology. I completely agree with your viewpoint on the importance of technology and how we should use it for virtue. Data, especially, is essential. According to the article, officials and researchers have used tools such as TellFinder and other machine learning systems to locate over a million suspicious advertisements that may lead to hidden trafficking websites. The holders of those websites use advanced technology to hide from the authorities and conduct illegal transactions, but we can similarly use technology to expose and detain them.

  3. In our day and age, data is a commodity just as valuable as oil. Because of this, it is not surprising that illegal markets that use this data have gained a substantial footing. If something is valuable, someone will find a way to exploit it. As I read this article I began to ponder why exactly people began businesses on the dark web. While on the forefront the answer may seem to be easy access to illicit goods and services, I believe the answer lies with the way people gain momentum and confidence on these platforms through anonymity. However, these “advantages” are short-lived. At the 2018 Ivy League Model UN conference hosted by UPenn, I represented the Russian Federation in a committee that focused on mitigating transnational illicit trade. I quickly learned that the challenges I had to address were not physical but rather they took place on the infamous dark web. I began to think of combatting the dark web as knocking down dominoes – by working from the bottom to the top and infiltrating one area, even the biggest of crime syndicates can be eradicated. The phenomena can be seen with the Silk Road, specifically in the arrest of its Ross William Ulbricht. Starting in 2011, Ulbricht sold drugs through the market he built up, made the transaction with BitCoin, and Tor to ensure his identity remained anonymous. Naturally, Ulbricht and other criminals on the dark web tried to stay a few steps ahead of the government but this didn’t work as an FBI agent penetrated the system and by 2013 he was arrested. So while it is undeniable that there is business on the dark web, it is clear that it is a risky business.
    With the advancement of technology and the onset of AI, it is inevitable that people will continue to find loopholes in government action. As Professor Bastani says, “on-the-ground knowledge” is getting further out of our reach as “supply chains become more and more global and distributed” due to “unauthorized behavior happening.” I believe this market is not lucrative despite it being illegal, this market is lucrative because it is illegal. People are able to access virtually anything – from everyday necessities to contraband. This drives up their price regardless of products’ intrinsic value. Furthermore, the risk factor involved also spikes prices, allowing distributors to profit even more. This encourages people to always find ways to sell and buy, regardless of the potential consequences. The silver lining of this situation is that since the demise of the Silk Road, many online drug platforms have been created but most have had both a weak foundation and short lifetime due to effective government action.
    The solution to taking down this market is beyond complex. The main issue that is posed is the nature of cryptocurrency. While cryptocurrency transactions are traceable and permanently stored on public ledgers, the identities attributed to them are anonymous because companies value decentralization. People have tried to find ways around this. For instance, the Elliptical Curve Digital Signature Algorithm was designed to track ledgers to find brokers who oversee transactions; however, this is out of the scope of the government. I believe the answer lies in user accountability. However, the issue with user accountability is that it goes against the core values of these cryptocurrency companies. The entire situation seems like a constant battle between the rules of the free market, the independence of private companies, and the holes within government regulation.
    I left this article with a deeper insight into the intricacies of the dark web, but I still have many questions. If cryptocurrency is becoming more and more predominant in the global economy today, how will governments work alongside companies to ensure legal activities even though they currently don’t have the jurisdiction to do so? Furthermore, the dark is fueled by its notoriety and its consumers. How will we discourage the general public from turning to illicit options as the dark web’s technology and products become even more captivating?

  4. I understand that the dark web is a place with a great lack of transparency, and people could get away with many illegal activities. I think a way to be able to clean up the dark web is to have the US government take whole-hearted action to cleanse illegal activity.

    The government could do this by taking funds from the discretionary spending sector in the United States’ annual budget to hire a private company to regulate the activity on the dark web. Anyone could access the dark web—all that is needed are specific softwares you can easily download, such as the (in)famous Tor and I2P browser. This issue has been overlooked by Congress greatly, but if a representative introduces a bill to take some funding in order to hire a private contractor. Many private companies and groups are likely to be very willing to use their advanced technological skills to scour and dig out illegal activity and delete and report them. However, just like the situation where Facebook recently lost a lawsuit over PTSD symptoms showing in their moderators, there would also be enough mental health and work environment support and caution to avoid for those that would be monitoring all this dark web activity. Cyber security hackers are already paid millions by the US government (The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security), so there could also be a task force within these hackers or another group to be hired in order to regulate the dark web. It would be best if there would be regular monitors, but as the dark web is a huge place, a full-force bi-annual cleansing and regulation would be more realistic and less expensive. I think many solutions could be solved if the government decided to take action and if there were funds to back the actions up.

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