EU’s Project Against Dark Web Crimes Enters Practical Phase
A research project funded and launched by the European Union in May 2017 to develop technical tools to help law enforcement agencies combat crimes carried out via the darknet using cryptocurrencies has entered its practical phase. On completion in April 2020 and if successful, the project will well equip law enforcement agencies in the fight against all darknet crimes and the illicit use of cryptocurrencies.
The project, known as Tools for the Investigation of Transactions in Underground Markets (TITANIUM), is coordinated by the Austrian Institute of Technology and was formed by 15 partners including research institutions, IT firms, and law enforcement agencies from seven countries. Some of the law enforcement agencies partnered in the project are INTERPOL, National Bureau of Investigation (Finland), and the Federal Criminal Police in Germany. The objective of the research project is to come up with investigative tools that will identify the illicit use of cryptocurrencies and the darknet without violating the rights of legitimate users. The resulting TITANIUM tools are to be applied by law enforcement agencies in: monitoring darknet markets and cryptocurrencies activities, analyzing cryptocurrency transactions, and providing evidence that is legally acceptable in courts.
In the practical phase of the TITANIUM project, the TITANIUM software was made available to law enforcement in Spain, Finland, Austria, and Germany. The law enforcement agencies in these countries are to apply the software in real cases and test its applicability. The practical phase will involve over 60 cybercrime experts who will be updated on developments on the tool and enlightened on how to apply programs incorporated in the tools. The testing by the police over several months is expected to give highly valuable feedback on the efficiency of the tool to the TITANIUM project partners.
According to a press release, the practical phase will involve the selected law enforcement agencies applying the TITANIUM tools to investigating criminal cryptocurrency transactions. The investigations will be carried out on the blockchains of cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin and monero, that are highly used in the darknet. The tools will also be used in analyzing darknet marketplaces for illicit activities. On completion of the investigative steps, the tools are to be used by the involved LE in the provision of evidence that is legally acceptable in a court of law. Since the tools are to be used for generating evidence to be used against suspects in court, the issues of data protection and other legal requirements were raised during the inauguration of the project’s practical phase.
The practical phase is expected to help vigorously test the tools against varying legal restrictions that come with cybercrime cases. To support the police in such tricky cases, the project developers provided data that will help avoid the interference and violation of the fundamental rights of suspects under investigation. To show that the developers of the tools really took into consideration the rights of suspects under investigation, Thilo Gottschalk, who coordinates the project in Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany (one of the partners involved in the project), said that the tools had been made to incorporate a number of tools to adequately and lawfully process data.
Since processing data obtained from the darknet ultimately leads to the interference of fundamental rights of those caught up in the investigation, Gottschalk explained that extreme measures had been put in place to ensure the interference happens legally and only when justified.
The press release did not disclose how other risks and challenges that the tools may pose will be handled during the practical phase and after it is fully incorporated into investigations at the end of the research project. Some of the risks and challenges are:
- Wrong decisions being made by LE based on findings made by the TITANIUM tools – law enforcement officers will easily trust the conclusions made by the tools citing their complicated technology and believing that such technology cannot make mistakes.
- The TITANIUM tools may, in the future, become unsustainable as technological advancements continue to take place – changes such as the invention of new cryptocurrencies may render the tools useless in investigations based on such cryptocurrencies.
- The tools have the risk of falling into the hands of authoritarian regimes – these regimes will obviously use the tools to intimidate citizens who use the darknet to air their grievances.
- The tool may also be misused by the police.
As the practical phase takes place at the hands of LE, developers of the software will work hand in hand with the officers to ensure the TITANIUM tools comply with international laws and other laws that are categorically different in certain countries. The researchers are charged with coding the laws into the software as the tests continue.