How the Dark Web Hides Child Sexual Abuse Material

The dark net is an encrypted, anonymity-focused part of the internet that designers built to thwart tracking.

U.S. authorities have identified the dark web as a collection of hyperlinked services on the dark net only accessible through specialized technologies.

Internet browsers use the dark web’s online identity protection for purposes that range from anti-authoritarian regime reforms to selling drugs.

The dark web gives international criminals online identity protection through specialized technologies.

Officials have taken a growing interest in the marketplace as an expanding criminal hub to exchange illegal goods, like child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

Human traffickers exploit the dark web’s encryption to distribute CSAM without fear of identification.

Dark web-enabled cryptocurrency exchanges help the traffickers launder money earned from their illicit enterprises. [1]

And encryption-protected criminals proliferate information that streamlines minor online exploitation.

Despite the magnitude of these problems, investigators struggle to crack down on the perpetrators.

This article explores how the dark web hides CSAM distributors and how the dark web works to foil investigators.

How the Dark Web Works

The most common way to access dark web links is through the browser Tor.

Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory developed Tor in the 1990s to conceal American dissidents or operatives communicating within oppressive regimes.

Released to the public in 2002, this platform is secure enough to act as a portal into the marketplace, without additional technology.

Store pages on the dark web function similarly to public internet services, like Amazon or Zappos.

Buyers can often rate sellers post-transaction, creating a reputation-based ecosystem.

An ability to track a seller’s reliability makes the marketplace an attractive alternative to risky street deals.

How the Dark Web Preserves Anonymity

Regular internet transactions typically leave a trail, marking their presence to authorities.

Payment transfers are excellent at making this trail since they often lead back to a bank or credit card of both parties.

Dark web exchangers bypass this smoke signal by primarily using cryptocurrencies

While most cryptocurrencies lead back to a digital wallet, the wallet’s owner may use a fake name, obscuring their real identity. [2]

Law Enforcement Dark Web Relationship

Despite the dark web's varied criminal offerings, including opioids, bomb components, illegal services, body parts, and child porn, most law enforcement personnel remain oblivious to its effects on their district.

Some personnel aren’t even aware of the marketplace's existence.

In this sense, the dark web has achieved its primary goal of obscuring user activity.

As long as law enforcement lacks awareness of basic functional details, criminal buyers and sellers face little fear of reprisal.

Coordination Challenges

Well-funded law agencies, like the FBI, can help compensate for normal officers’ knowledge vacuum regarding information technologies.

Unfortunately, cross-jurisdictional coordination is poor between U.S. departments, let alone international bureaus.

Online crime further complicates investigations by muddling jurisdictional clarity.

A web-facilitated offense may have a perpetrator in one district, a victim in another, and the servers that recorded the offense in a third.

How do attending officials determine investigative responsibility?

Because of their product’s digital nature, CSAM distributors especially can take advantage of this confusion.

Following the 2021 Netherlands’s crackdown on local CSAM-hosting service providers, operators moved much of their content to the United States, leaving little impact on the global market. [3] 

Resource Challenges

Network investigative techniques are useful tools that exploit software weaknesses on suspects’ computers.

However, software manipulation is a complex, ever-evolving field that requires technical investment and acumen sorely lacking from most departments.

High-cost cybercrime investigators are sometimes necessary to achieve localized dominance over web-based criminals.

But the funding to hire these specialists often comes at the expense of other projects or is non-existent.

Expansion Challenges

While regular internet services still account for the vast majority of online criminal sales, research suggests that trend may reverse.

A 2022 Justice Department report found that one dark web site received $5.2 in cryptocurrency since 2015. [4] 

Securing direct proof that the dark web is accounting for an increasingly significant portion of online crime would bolster improvement efforts.

However, U.S. computer-enabled crimes are difficult to track, lowering the precision of global change estimates.

Compounding the issue is the dark web’s diversity of goods and services offered.

Proper investigations require a broad understanding of a variety of criminal enterprises.

Skilled Criminals Challenges

Despite the dark web’s focus on secrecy, accessing the marketplace is relatively simple.

According to a National Institute of Justice supported writeup, the Rand Report: “Basic internet literacy, a computer, and access to the internet is enough for any sufficiently motivated individual to begin supplying or purchasing illicit goods on the dark web.” [5]

This simplicity sometimes benefits law enforcement since de-anonymizing can compromise entire markets.

However, users have implemented tools to preserve informational integrity.

Since its first appearance in 2000, authorities have been uninformed of dark web dealings.

The resulting relative lack of opposition has allowed a criminal niche to gain expertise through years of experience.

Following disruption by law enforcement, these legacy dark web criminals quickly create new markets or shift to different existing markets.

Sharing effective evasion techniques between users is common.

Legal Challenges

In the U.S., where laws uphold citizen’s privacy, investigators struggle to survey a suspect without spying on adjacent users.

This problem is especially complicated when the suspect uses a public machine, such as a library computer.

In cases where officials lack a suspect, mass surveillance techniques are among the most practical solutions.

Such measures pose significant civil rights challenges.

Additional research is necessary to determine how much privacy citizens would exchange for security.

In the meantime, warrant-proof encryption protects criminal enterprises, including the distribution of CSAM. [6] 

Entrapment is a legal claim criminals may use if they feel an officer tricked them into a crime they would otherwise have been unlikely to commit.

Dark web investigators impersonating criminals to establish trust may run into this claim.

Scale Challenges 

Presenting relevant data to online crime jury members is often a challenge.

Dark web offenses may leave large data quantities difficult to sift through.

Additionally, indecipherable formats block attempts to quickly access key details.

This scale is especially troublesome when dark web materials lack physical residue.

Unlike drugs, digital-only materials, like CSAM, often leave no trace for on-the-ground officers to discover.

So, investigators rarely find CSAM without citizen reports or extensive inspections.

Complexity Challenges

The dark web uses complex software that anonymizes users’ IP addresses.

So, even if officers apprehend a dark web user and check their machine, they may not be able to see which websites the suspect visited.

Regardless of investigative prompting, dark web users routinely change URLs.

If observing officers have failed to gather sufficient tracking data, such shifts will thwart inspections.

Dark web transactions encrypt data, frustrating monitoring efforts.

Failure to declassify coded communications makes gathering substantial evidence virtually impossible.

General Targets

The consistent rise of dark web criminal activity has lacked a similar increase in data informing response effectiveness.

Large data sets provide critical measurements that endorse or reject a technique’s quality.

Globalized internet use means illicit web activity spans across international and state boundaries.

Users will continue to exploit confusion regarding trans-border responsibility unless authorities strengthen cross-jurisdictional cooperation.

Surveyed law enforcement members have voiced worries regarding retaliation should they target dark web users.

This sentiment conveys a worrying level of mystification regarding such users' ability to perform such reprisals.

Training should emphasize the mundane nature of dark web investigations, equating them to on-the-ground police work.

Unit commanders will benefit from persuasion to initiate dark web investigations and training.

Such training should include the following two categories:

1. Line officers must learn basic familiarity in identifying and collecting digital evidence.

2. Specialized units must learn evidence-preservation methods and criminal tactics.

Should law enforcement implement wide-scale training, more subject matter experts are needed. 

Training Targets

To facilitate the complex improvements effective dark web combatting requires, state task forces may be necessary.

These groups would share information between jurisdictions and organizations, filling the lynchpin role in unit coordination.

Here are some training details that serve as the base for an improved force:

● Line officers must learn the scope and common types of illegal dark web dealings.

● Investigating officers must learn to identify relevant details, such as login information, that tie suspects to criminal websites.

● Federal partners must guide investigative privacy concerns.

Current Opportunities 

Web hosting services, internet service, and cloud service providers may be willing to cooperate with law enforcement on a routine basis.

This collaboration could hand over access to invaluable information systems.

Additionally, officers could investigate dark web connections for more conventional crimes, like drug overdoses.

Routine inspections may uncover crimes’ illicit online origins.

Such inspections should extend to mailed packages since they are often the vehicle to transfer dark web contraband.

However, the scale of American package delivery offers challenges here, with estimates placing U.S. Postal Service daily parcel shipments alone at 500 million.

Laws require modernization to facilitate these investigations.

Postal service seizures often require warrants that impede legitimate inspections.


Current law enforcement’s understanding of the dark web’s criminal activities is lacking.

Knowledge, funding, and resources for probing the marketplace are insufficient to overcome the legal and technical challenges facing investigators.

By combining improved training with systems built to combat dark web felonies, law enforcement may greatly improve their online crime-fighting effectiveness. 

Key Takeaways

1. Users need an identity-protection technology, like Tor, to access the dark web. 

2. Cryptocurrency helps keep dark web buyers and sellers anonymous. 

3. Most law enforcement remain oblivious regarding dark web illicit activity. 

4. A lack of jurisdictional clarity muddies online investigations. 

5. Proving the dark web’s expanding role in criminal transactions is difficult.

6. Online criminals use legal and technological tools against investigations.

7. Improved cross-border coordination is critical to bypass jurisdiction obstacles.

8. Specialized and generalized training need expansion and modernization.

9. Officers have immediate options available to improve online crime fighting. 

Act Now. For more tools and information, check out our Resources page.  

Additional Details

This best practices prevention guide and publication is part of the Human Trafficking Front's program: Putting an End to the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children: Preventing Victimization and Strengthening Child Protection Systems.

Recommended Citation

Human Trafficking Front. (2023, December 26). How the Dark Web Hides Child Sexual Abuse Material.


[1] UN News. Traffickers Abusing Online Technology, UN Crime Prevention Agency Warns. UN News, October 30, 2021, 

[2] Is Crypto Anonymous?, 

[3] MIT Technology Review. The US Now Hosts More Child Sexual Abuse Material Online Than Any Other Country. MIT Technology Review, April 26, 2022,

[4] U.S. Department of Justice. Justice Department Investigation Leads to Shutdown of Largest Online Darknet Marketplace. U.S. Department of Justice,

[5] National Institute of Justice. Taking on the Dark Web: Law Enforcement Experts ID Investigative Needs. National Institute of Justice, 

[6] U.S. Department of Justice. International Statement on End-to-End Encryption and Public Safety. U.S. Department of Justice,

Human Trafficking Front

Dr. Beatriz Susana Uitts is a human rights specialist, Internet child safety advocate, and founder of Human Trafficking Front, a research and advocacy organization for the prevention of human trafficking. Dr. Uitts holds a J.S.D. and LL.M. in Intercultural Human Rights from St. Thomas University College of Law in Miami Gardens, FL, and is the author of the book Sex Trafficking of Children Online: Modern Slavery in Cyberspace regarding the growing problem of online child sexual exploitation. In this book, she proposes solutions to prevent its spread and promote a safer Internet for children and adolescents worldwide.