Everyday five billion people use the internet, most just to check their emails or social media, some to complete the daily Wordle, however there are others who use it to access what’s called the dark web.
The dark web contains websites that can’t be accessed via your standard search engine such as Google. In order to gain access, you must have a special browser, but why use the dark web?
Unlike the normal internet and everyday browsers, the dark web allows users to remain anonymous and have their browsing history remain private. You can probably put two and two together and work out that the primary use of the dark web is for illegal activity.
Some of the main uses involve selling weapons and drugs, identify theft, even human trafficking, however, one of the biggest uses of the dark web is the trade of child pornography, also known as child abuse material.
In order to perpetrate this, people create what are called “boards”, similar to Facebook pages, a board is where people, who share a common interest, can come together and exchange opinions, goods or services.
Throughout the dark web people have created several of these boards dedicated to trading child abuse material, some of these contain over 2.5 million members.
The documentary, The Children in the Pictures, focuses on these boards and what exactly is being done to shut them down. Writer and director of the documentary, Akhim Dev, spent several months with a dedicated task force called Argos, who are the world leaders in shutting these boards down.
Dev decided to investigate and create the documentary about child abuse material after spending time researching prisoner recidivism rates for a different project.
When interviewing prisoners, one of them told him exactly what was occurring on the dark web and just how big it had become when it came to trading child abuse material. After doing more research, Dev wanted to make sure more people knew about it.
What most shocked Dev was not only the large amount of people who are a part of these boards, but what they are willing to do to join and remain in them, including members of task force Argos.
“In order to join some of these boards people have to basically submit an application with child abuse material attached in order to show you’re not part of the police and will contribute within the boards,” Dev tells upstart.
“It’s also like a membership renewal system; each month members have to send in new child abuse material they have in order to remain in these boards.”
Members forms their own secret society with certain guidelines that must be followed, as well as having a designated leader amongst them who enforces them.
“I stumbled into this hidden world, and it’s a secret community, these pages are set up exactly like Facebook, each user can like or dislike posts and there’s a hierarchy with one person at the top who controls it all,” he says.
“They’ve got roles and responsibilities with rules and regulations, they’ve got a constitution, like a code of ethics, that they all must follow”
The primary use is to buy, swap and sell child abuse material, however due to the illegal nature of the content, they don’t use money.
“They’ve got an economy, and it’s not money, it’s this child abuse material that they trade with each other, so it’s literally a secret society, the child abuse material is graded and assigned value so that it can be traded on,” he says.
Much like how children trade footy and Pokémon cards between themselves at school, some of the child abuse material is rarer and more highly sought after than others and therefore given a higher value.
With the volume of people joining these boards growing by the day, and the child abuse material continuing to be shared, Queensland Police decided to set up a dedicated task force called Argos, whose work Dev would follow throughout his documentary.
Founded in 1997, the first priority set out by the head of Argos, Jon Rouse, was to find out as much about these boards and how they were set up and operated as possible. In order to do this, Argos had to access the dark web, infiltrate the boards and follow the rules put in place in order to remain in them.
After establishing themselves within the boards, the Argos’s team members plans were to shut them down. But to do so required them to go deeper in order to rise up the hierarchy. Eventually this led to Argos rising so high in this community, they were at the top.
“We took control, full control of the board, you ended up with a child sex offender network that was administered by law enforcement,” Rouse says.
While this strategy took a lot of time, it provided valuable insight into how the boards were operated and what exactly Argos was up against.
“It proved a really good experience for our investigators to learn about how the boards work, once we got VIP status within these boards, we had visibility on areas of the board that normal members didn’t,” he says.
Once they were in control of the boards, Argos would be able to shut them down by significantly increasing the amount of web traffic. By doing this it would cause the sites to crash.
The issue was, once they were able to shut down one board, another one would be created, and the process would then have to be repeated. Another hurdle for Argos is the ever-evolving internet. It is becoming increasingly easier to hide your identity online and the amount of content that can shared continues to grow.
“Internet speed has increased, storage capability has increased, ways to hide yourself have also increased, whether that’s using proxies, anonymising services, storing your material in the cloud, there’s so many different ways now that we as law enforcement have to try to keep up with,” he says.
While the child abuse boards will continue to surface on the dark web, task force Argos will persist with their work in the hope that they can limit the amount of material being shared.
Ahkim Dev, on the other hand, has begun taking his documentary worldwide. He is hoping to raise awareness and educate people on the matter in order to allow them to grasp just how severe the spread of child abuse material is.
“The goal is to raise awareness and we want to basically let the audience know that they are not powerless in this, they don’t just have to sit back and watch,” he says.
Author: Thomas Dev is a third-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Sport journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on @Devdev10007
Photo: Closeup photo of turned-on blue and white laptop photo by Philipp Katzenberger available HERE and used under a Creative Commons licence. The photo has not been modified.