Entering the grimy world of the dark web

As published in The Australian 10 December 2020

By Rachael Falk, CEO, Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre

To the outside world Shannon McCoole was an ordinary guy – a good guy – a government-employed family carer to some of South Australia’s most vulnerable children.

But on the dark web he was a king, head administrator of a hardcore child pornography site, with more than 45,000 members worldwide.

It was here he posted images of children in his care, images like a little girl naked on a bed with a handwritten sign next to her – “Aussie”.

McCoole’s youngest victim was an 18-months old girl, who raised alarm bells when she began stomping on her doll’s head and grabbing its groin. Another victim – a little boy – has long-standing behavioural issues and hides under chairs when he feels threatened.

It took four years to uncover McCoole’s identity. 

Four years of gruelling police work before he could be charged and ultimately sentenced to 35 years’ jail. 

Four years during which thousands of children could have been saved.

When McCoole was caught he had a choice. He could give consent for investigators to take control of his accounts or he could refuse. 

Ultimately, he handed over control to police, allowing them to operate covertly, leading to the arrest of numerous predators around the world.

But if he had refused, authorities would have been powerless because under our current laws, McCoole had the right to say ‘no’. 

It is cases like this that make legislation to combat dark web criminals, like that introduced into the Australian Parliament last week, vitally important.

Because without such laws, child sex predators, terrorists and drug dealers can continue to operate unfettered on dark web forums and marketplaces.

They are afforded the right to hide behind a veil of encryption and anonymisation.

They currently have the power.

The proposed Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill 2020, which is likely to be passed next year, seeks to introduce new law enforcement powers to enhance the ability of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) to combat serious online crime. 

While electronic surveillance powers do exist, they are simply not fit-for-purpose when it comes to the proliferation of dark web enabled crime, which is increasing in scope and scale. It is difficult to detect and perpetrators are almost impossible to locate and identify.  

The Bill has three key components, allowing for data disruption warrants, network activity warrants and account takeover warrants. 

Put simply, police will no longer have to ask permission to access a paedophile’s accounts.

And to be clear – this is not about the government spying on innocent Australians. Ours is not a surveillance state.

This is about breaking down the barbican currently shielding serious criminals.

Despite what some keyboard warriors might say, these people do not deserve protection in the name of privacy. Such an assertion is morally obtuse and falls foul of other laws that have existed for decades, such as telephone interception powers.

Privacy is valuable but it must have limitations and these limitations must correlate with the social contract we have all entered into, upon which modern democracies like Australia’s are built.

Social contract theory holds that for society to function properly individuals must give up certain rights. This is for the common good and is as true today as it was 300 years ago.

Hence, the social contract and all it stands for can no longer simply be applied to the physical world. It is only natural that its meaning must be expanded and hold to account unacceptable behaviour in the digital domain.

In 2020 digital dualism – the belief the online and offline worlds are clearly distinct, do not interact and do not intersect – is unfeasible. A digital identity is simply an extension of the individual and does not absolve serious wrongdoing that occurs online.

And these horrors are happening right here, right now.

Over the last 12 months the AFP’s Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) has intercepted more than 250,000 child abuse material files online and 134 children – 67 in Australia – were removed from harm in the 2019-20 financial year.

During the COVID-19 pandemic the ACCCE has identified new users of dark web child exploitation sites seeking advice and guidance regarding avoiding detection by law enforcement. Concurrently, the sharing of child exploitation material uploads tagged ‘original content’ has increased substantially.

And the volume of livestreamed abuse is increasing, with reporting of suspicious financial transactions indicating payment for such content increasing 32 per cent in the six months to June 2020 as compared to the previous six months.

The time for action is now to ensure our laws can protect all Australians, especially our most vulnerable citizens – our children.

We would not tolerate flagrant, horrific abuse of children in the house next door. So why would we accept it on dark web, just because it is neatly tucked away and hidden from view?

If we are complacent we are just as culpable.