- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2020

The FBI is dropping the ball on investigations into illegal darknet activity, including the sale of opioids and distribution of child pornography, a Justice Department watchdog said Thursday.

The department’s inspector general concluded that the FBI didn’t adopt a cohesive strategy to investigate the darknet, leading various units to compete with each other rather than work together to shut down illicit marketplaces.

“Two critical FBI units were essentially competing by actively developing separate strategies,” to target darknet administrators and websites, the inspector general wrote in a report.

The darknet is a subset of the internet hidden from standard web browsers that can only be reached with specific software that makes it impossible for law enforcement to track a user’s online movements.

That makes it a hub for all kinds of illegal activities, including selling opioids, firearms, stolen credit card data, and child pornography.

So far the FBI has had some success taking down darknet marketplaces.

In 2017, it shut down AlphaBay, a darknet site where uses could by all sorts of illegal products and services. AlphaBay was reported to have more than 350,000 users and 40,000 vendors.

Still, the FBI would be more effective if it had a consistent, comprehensive strategy, according to the inspector general.

For example, the FBI has begun targeting site administrators who facilitate the distribution of child pornography on the darknet by simply shutting down their site.

The inspector general said simply shutting down a site was “not sufficient” because its users can just move to a new location and still access the pornographic images.

The inspector general called on the FBI to eliminate ambiguous or overlapping investigative responsibilities, consolidate investigative tools, and implement formal monitoring of its efforts to combat the darknet.

In a response to the inspector general, an FBI official said the bureau agreed with its recommendations and echoed the need for a consistent strategy to combat illicit activity on the darknet.

“We agree it is important to work towards a more coordinated FBI wide dark web approach,” wrote FBI Executive Assistant Director Terry Wade. “In that regard, we agree with your five recommendations for the FBI.”

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