Swansea University Interrogate the Workings of the ‘Dark Web’

Experts from a range of research areas at Swansea University joined forces with high profile external colleagues and agencies at a conference to elevate investigations into the mysterious ‘Dark Web’.

The Dark Web is one of a number of expressions used to refer to an untraceable internet that cannot be accessed through standard means, is a virtual space populated by a range of criminal organisations such as arms dealers, terrorist networks and drug traffickers operating outside current legal structures. The event brought external agencies such as the UN and Home Office, together with research experts at Swansea University.

Dr Stuart MacDonald, an expert in the law relating to cyberterrorism from the College of Law at Swansea University said: "The wider world is just starting to hear about the disturbing and powerful forces at work within the Dark Web.  The new cyber underworld threatens many aspects of modern day safety and security and our aim at Swansea is to lead the way in understanding ways to infiltrate and tackle some of the greatest challenges associated to this developing threat.”

The Dark Web is entered via online mechanisms such as ‘The Onion Router’, users can anonymously, and with relative ease, purchase a range of illicit goods, including weapons and drugs, through use of the virtual currency ‘Bitcoin.’ 

Prof David Bewley-Taylor, Director of the Global Drug Policy Observatory at Swansea said: “This burgeoning form of e-commerce, often referred to simply as the ‘Silk Road’, is beyond government regulation and is booming.  Recent figures claim that, in the UK alone, 15,000 people log into the Dark Web daily, this virtual space is providing the perfect platform for criminal organisations to trade almost anything.” 

One key area for exploration is the complex use of language patterns within the Dark Web.  Prof Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, Director of the Language Research Centre at Swansea said: “Advances in linguistic analysis, including use of state-of-the-art corpus linguistics software, makes it increasingly possible not only to trace authorship within the Dark Web but also to generate communicative profiles for activities that range from persuading users to invest in certain illegal activities through to negotiating terms and conditions of deals.”

The importance of researching the Dark Web has drawn in high profile external colleagues to develop research projects, colleagues such as Francesca Bosco from the United Nations Interregional Crime Research Institute (UNICRI) who highlighted the national international significance of this work: She said: “The activities of organised criminal networks have for many years been a key focus of UNICRI’s research agenda, which has investigated the involvement of organised criminality in a range of different illicit activities also in cyberspace, among which the Dark Web is a worrying growing phenomenon. A high level international cooperation and synchronisation is necessary to counter online organised crime and it must be addressed by the international community collectively, and with harmonized efforts at both national and international levels.”

This work is being supported by the Research Institute for Arts and Humanities and Research Institute for Applied Social Sciences (RIASS) at Swansea University, working alongside colleagues in law and computer science.  It is this mix of research areas that is essential to unlocking the mysterious and in many cases disturbing world of the burgeoning Dark Web.


Notes for Editors:

The workshop was primarily hosted by three research units within Swansea University:

-       The Cyberterrorism Project – a multidisciplinary research project that examines a wide range of terrorists’ online activities – from propaganda, communication and radicalisation to finance, training and attack – and evaluates different forms of response in terms of their effectiveness, impact and legitimacy http://www.cyberterrorism-project.org/

-        The GDPO  - an interdisciplinary  research project aiming to promote evidence and human rights based drug policy through the comprehensive and rigorous reporting, monitoring and analysis of policy developments at national and international levels


-          The Language Research Centre (LRC) - a hub for language-based research of an applied nature, comprising expertise in quantitative and qualitative tools for the analysis of text-based streams.


The workshop aimed to bring together researchers, practitioners and policymakers across a range of disciplines to develop an initial 12-month strategy for progressively securing large external funding to interrogate the workings of the Dark Web and the commensurate policy related challenges and opportunities.  The inclusion of external non-academic stakeholders with an interest and expertise in the issue area will help with the development of policy relevant future research projects and, where appropriate, provide opportunities for collaborative research grant capture.   

Reference:  recent figures claiming that 15,000 people in the UK log into the Dark Web daily (The Independent, 2013).