AS CRIMINALS increasingly embrace and exploit digital technologies, the nature of crime continues to change. Roughly 90% of crime now has some form of digital element attached to it, with digital marketplaces at the very forefront of this usage. Steve Adams elaborates on the fine detail.
Digital marketplaces are online platforms designed to connect buyers and sellers worldwide and facilitate the exchange of an array of products. Research suggests that 94% of consumers have made at least one purchase on a digital marketplace, with 91% of them regularly making purchases on Amazon and 70% using other marketplaces. Given the widespread use of these digital platforms, such marketplaces have increasingly become an opportunity for the commission – or facilitation – of crime.
When discussing crime on digital marketplaces, thoughts often focus on Dark Web marketplaces like Alphabay and The Silk Road. Dark Web marketplaces provide an encrypted hub for criminality, where sellers and buyers can conduct transactions digitally and anonymously. Infamously, they enable the trade of illegal goods and services, including drugs, weapons and stolen personal data.
Surface web digital marketplaces are not immune from criminality, but often receive less attention from investigators. Surface web digital marketplaces are those easily accessed by the general public and locatable using search engines. Criminals frequently and brazenly engage in criminality on these platforms, engaging in tax avoidance and the trade of stolen items, counterfeit goods, wildlife, illicit drugs and illegal weapons.
Investigatory and prosecution challenges
Digital marketplace investigations often cross the boundaries of local, state, national and, sometimes, international jurisdictions, thereby presenting investigatory and prosecution challenges. Crime is an ever-present factor in these marketplaces, meaning that investigators increasingly need to navigate the waters within.
There are many different marketplaces where sellers can obfuscate their identity without repercussion when looking to sell stolen, illicit or forged merchandise or legitimate items to avoid tax. There are a handful of significant platforms worth considering when investigating for goods linked to a crime or when looking for a specific seller linked to criminality.
When researching criminality on surface web marketplaces, investigators should be well versed in investigative techniques to analyse and collect intelligence from platforms like Amazon, eBay and Facebook. Manual investigations are time-intensive, though, with investigators having to search each individual site regularly to discover postings.
Legal and ethical considerations
Investigators need to understand the legal and ethical considerations of digital marketplace investigations. Here in the UK, several laws – including the General Data Protection Regulation and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – regulate Internet investigations where personal data is collected.
A marketplace investigation focuses on items for sale rather than personal data. On that basis, most forms of activity are acceptable. Investigators can lawfully go anywhere the public can go, including public spaces, public buildings and private buildings (including shops). Digital marketplaces are public-facing websites, so there’s no reason this should be any different. When personal data becomes relevant, legislation then comes into play and must be considered before investigators only collect personal data on those linked to criminality.
Marketplaces and their listings are generally available to a broad audience without restriction, unlike social media profile pages, which users can lock down. In some cases, accounts may be required to view information on listings, such as the seller’s name on Facebook. The use of covert accounts (ie accounts created under a false name) is usually prohibited by social media and digital marketplace platforms.
For organisations preferring not to breach these policies, the use of official company accounts is not usually prohibited, so using these for marketplace investigations that do not focus on collecting personal data is generally acceptable. Alternatively, organisations can leverage automated solutions that capture marketplace data without requiring the management and use of covert accounts.
At the 2022 edition of the International Security Expo, we discussed the many ways that criminals have been discovered to be exploiting digital marketplaces to facilitate serious and organised crime and evade law enforcement. We also demonstrated proven and free tools and techniques leveraged by law enforcement investigators to detect and disrupt this criminality across several major marketplaces. In addition, we explained how law enforcement and Government organisations can resolve significant marketplace investigation challenges.
In terms of our own offer, Skopenow is an analytical OSINT search engine trusted by thousands of investigators looking to use digital evidence to curb crime. Skopenow makes use of social media, web articles, The Dark Web, associated vehicles, court records, digital marketplaces and consented contact data to create comprehensive digital reports. Using behavioural analytics and identity resolution, we’re able to detect actionable risks like weapons, drugs, violent behaviour and threatening language.
Steve Adams is Product Marketing Manager at Skopenow (www.skopenow.com)
Steve Adams delivered a presentation entitled ‘Disrupting Serious and Organised Crime on Digital Marketplaces’ at the Global Counter Terror and Serious and Organised Crime Summit (sponsored by Skopenow). The presentation was delivered at 1.30 pm on Tuesday 27 September as part of the International Security Expo Conference Programme, which was held at London’s Olympia
Security Matters served as the Lead Media Partner for the show, which is run on an annual basis by the Nineteen Group and, in 2022, celebrated its 20th Anniversary
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