CYBER SERIES | Understanding and combatting crime on the dark web

The Means Report

I’m excited to announce that we are continuing our series on cyber. An opportunity for you to learn everything about what goes on, not just on your computer, but on the World Wide Web in general. What is happening out there? The threats, the people who are trying to protect us from those threats? Today especially, what’s lurking on the dark web? Do you know what that is, even? We will find out shortly. Also the internet is forever. I know a lot of parents are nodding their heads in agreement right now, kids don’t seem to get that, do they? And catching predators, what are our law enforcement officers doing to make sure that those who would seek to do wrong on the web get caught? And I can’t think of a better person to be our guest than Steven Foster. He is a special agent in charge for the GBI’s Georgia Cyber Crime Center.

Brad Means: And Steven, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us. And thanks for what you do.

Steven Foster: Well, thank you.

Brad Means: I want to first of all start with something we had on TV not too long ago here on Channel 6 called Operation Southern Impact. It was an investigation that netted more than 80 people who are suspected of crimes related to I think, primarily human trafficking?

Steven Foster: That’s correct.

Brad Means: How’d the internet How does cyber play a role in all that?

Steven Foster: Cyber now plays a huge role in child sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. So the ability to move files around, to have communications with children, to pretend to be something that you’re not so that you can lure children into circumstances, situations where they may be vulnerable. They may want to meet with someone who they think may be another child. It may turn out to be an adult and it puts them in a precarious situation. So the use of technology by our kids has placed all of us in more of a precarious situation because of that. It basically goes against the rules that we’ve always had for families in public, where you don’t let your kids talk to strangers and now suddenly that’s the environment that they’re placed into on the internet. As you’re talking to people, you don’t know who they are or who they’re pretending to be and it opens up that door to where you’re talking to an unlimited flow of strangers, who may not have your best intentions at heart.

Brad Means: But kids by their very nature are so trusting. Without ruining their internet experience or their video game time up in their bedroom, how do we protect them? What should we say to them?

Steven Foster: Well I think there are two things. I think the first thing is for parents to understand that we have to have those traditional rules in place for the virtual world. So when they’re playing the games and they’re interacting with other people around the world that are playing the same games or they’re involved with social media, we have to understand that that has to be monitored. We need to keep an eye on what their activity is, who they’re speaking with, what kind of conversations they’re having. Are they innocent gameplay? Or are they leading somewhere else? So I think that’s the first thing. The second is that this is the new playground and we have to except the fact that it is. But we have to take responsibility for the technology and not let it lead us. We have to maintain control over it.

Brad Means: So what are some red flags? If the person on the other end says, “Where are you?“ “How old are you?“

Steven Foster: Absolutely! If they get too probing. And I think it goes to that stranger in the mall. What’s their intention? What are they asking? What information do they want? How close are they getting? Is it a situation where they’re asking you to meet them? They want to come meet you. When do your parents leave? When are they not home? Those types of probing questions should be the red flags that go up. There is a culture on the internet, that is made up of predators who pretend to be young kids. And the purpose of that is to build that trust, that comradery and put you in a more trusting situation so that you’re more apt to do whatever it is that they’re asking you to do. Whether it bedevelop that line of conversation, send photographs to them over the internet, or actually physically meet somewhere.

Brad Means: Would I be correct in assuming the younger you are, the more vulnerable?

Steven Foster: I think so. Although that I think the younger the children are, although I think with technology this is changing, the use of the technology is more limited to what their interests are. So it’s gameplay, things of that nature, where as they’re getting into their young teens they’re more exploratory to have those social connections.

Brad Means: Yup!

Steven Foster: And that becomes very vulnerable. So that’s when the social media starts to really enter into it and I think that’s where the dangers are.

Brad Means: I want to get back to kids later in the interview, for sure. We could do the whole show on it. If we did I think a lot of people would appreciate it. But let’s move to other areas of internet danger. Going back to Operation Southern Impact, back to the human trafficking situation. Steven, sometimes I drive by the pilot station at River watch and I20 here in Augusta and I think, “I bet there are trafficking victims that are in there right now.“ Is it that common place here in our area?

Steven Foster: I think to a degree it is. You still have what I think is a traditional situation, where you have the runaways, those that are going out and being found. And they get into being victims of trafficking that way. But with the advent of technology, a lot of this is more of, the hunting ground has become the internet.

Brad Means: Yup.

Steven Foster: So yes, you do have those. You do have the truck stops and the runaways, the hitchhikers, that we have always seen, those who have left home and find themselves in those types of circumstances. But we have those that are being lured away from home, now on a much greater scale, through the online predators.

Brad Means: And is it just a situation where someone will engage the child, as you’ve already described, and then get to a point where they can say, “Hey! Meet me somewhere,“

Steven Foster: Sure.

Brad Means: And then that’s it?

Steven Foster: Absolutely and they prey on the naivety of the child. They prey on the desire of the child to be wanted, to have a relationship and they build off of that. And historically, in child abuse type situations we call it“grooming.“ What we’ve done is we’ve moved from the traditional grooming to an online grooming. Where now a predator can actually groom multiple children and if you have success with one or two, then they have met their goals. But it allows them basically a much broader target group, that they can go after because of that. They enjoy the anonymity of the internet, the ability to pretend to be something that they’re not and all of those and they’re preying on the needs of the child or the wants of the child. All of those together help lure that child into their world.

Brad Means: Is it mostly the stereotypical guy, in his mother’s basement? Or is it all types of folks?

Steven Foster: I think that it’s really, what we’ve seen is that it’s all types of folks. And I think that the stereotypical guy, in the dark basement with the hoodie and the green computer screens is just that it’s the stereotype. And even in general cyber crime, what we find is that hacker types of predator is not the one that we need to be concerned about. They make a very small percentage of the actual criminals. Most are like you and me.

Brad Means: Normal people.

Steven Foster: They’re normal people and they’re simply just using the technology that they have available for the purposes that they’re interested in. They have jobs, some very respectable jobs and they get caught up in this situation and find that it’s an easy way for them to live out whatever this fantasy of theirs is or this lifestyle, this activity, to the point where, hopefully, we’re able to lay hands on them and stop their activity.

Brad Means: We have so much to talk about with special agent in charge, Steven Foster with the GBI focusing on the cyber crimes that are going on in the great state of Georgia. I want to talk about the dark web, also I want to go back to our children and look at ways to protect them from others and to protect them from themselves, as our special series on cyber continues on the Means Report, when we come back.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to the Means Report. I’m with Steven Foster. He’s a special agent in charge for the GBI. He works out of Georgia’s cyber crime center in the that beautiful hall, McKnight Building, one of the twin buildings on Augusta’s River Front. Steven Foster, takes for staying with me. I want to talk about the dark web. For those of us who don’t know what it is, what is it? And did it start off as a nice, good thing?

Steven Foster: It did and it’s a very interesting thing. I think that the dark web has gotten that name because of the illicit activity that goes on on the dark web. But the dark web was actually created by the United States Navy. And it was designed as an encrypted, secure means of communication to use within the internet. So you have this global network, the World Wide Web, that’s been around for about 30 years and the US Navy designed this dark web technology so that they could have secure communication to their forces around the world. I only hope that what has happened, is the United States Navy and the military had developed something better. So they’ve gone to the next generation of securecommunications and then they released this technology into the public realm. So the dark web’s not really a mysterious place. What the dark web is is it is a portion of the internet that requires a special tool to get to. The special tool is called an onion router. The project is called Tors, the Tor Project. Tor means “The Onion Router“ literally. And it requires a browser that allows you into this area of the internet.

Brad Means: Is it illegal to go buy that browser?

Steven Foster: It’s not. The browser itself is actually free and it’s available to the public and it’s on a website that’s publicly run called the torproject.org on the internet and you can download the browser. And there are very legitimate reasons for the dark web. Some of it is that we still have a desire for privacy and secure communications, secure browsing. The more we have vulnerabilities in our networks, the more we desire to do business over the internet in the most secure way. And this onion router, this highly encrypted communication tool allows us to do that. So there are legitimate purposes for this. Others are enclosed Communication or closed communities around the world, countries who are authoritarian, that have very close reign on their internet use. You have dissonance in those countries, who desire to communicate outside of those monitored networks and this technology allows them to do that. So they’re able to freely communicate around the world. Where in the normal internet, their government would be able to monitor their communications and cause trouble.

Brad Means: If I have an onion router, does it take me straight to the dark web or do I have to type in a special address?

Steven Foster: Actually any dark web using the onion router, any dark web address that is tied to that

Brad Means: Is it .com?

Steven Foster: It is actually .onion.

Brad Means: dot onion?

Steven Foster: Right. Dark, .com, .net, dot any of the normal dots are all the normal internet. So in the Tor area of the dark web they’re all .onion.

Brad Means: But if I go to my home computer right now and say “buysomeopioids.onion“ it’s not going to so any good?

Steven Foster: It doesn’t, they are not normal names of websites.

Brad Means: Okay.

Steven Foster: So, you can’t just go to something like that, “iwanttobuydrugs.onion“

Brad Means: Right.

Steven Foster: and find that. They’re actually, look like encrypted titles for the web addresses. So you either have to know someone, that can lead you towards where these drugs, guns and other illegal services are to be able to find those. So it creates a challenge for us because it is encrypted technology so that the flow of information to and from a criminal on the dark web is very difficult for us to negotiate.

Brad Means: What is crypto currency and is it used to pay for these illegal transactions that you’ve talked about? Is that the most comfortable way to pay?

Steven Foster: It is. And the one crypto currency that we talk about and hear about the most is Bitcoin.

Brad Means: Yes.

Steven Foster: There are more Ethereum. There are several different types of crypto currency. There are actually crypto currency that are developed everyday for specific purposes. Bitcoin’s the most popular. Bitcoin is actually not currency. It’s actually controlled as a security, just like a stock and a bond is but it’s traceable. So the transactions that you use crypto currency through are noted in a ledger called blockchain. And we can follow the transactions with crypto currency through that block chain and it’s publicly available information. And you can see where that crypto currency travels. So it is used for those purposes and one of the reasons for that is it’s so new. We’ve developed regulations over dozens of years that deal with actual currency and the banking industry. Crypto currency uses a completely different system, completely different network for the tracking of the currency to and from the buyer and seller. So it’s very handy for the criminal to use crypto currency for those purposes.

Brad Means: Are criminals on the internet a couple steps ahead of law enforcement?

Steven Foster: I think they always are. And there are law enforcement agencies that have been in the crypto currency, the cyber crime game for a long time The FBI, Secret Service, Homeland Security are very well abreast to what’s going on. What we have occurring now in state and local law enforcement is this is now becoming the new frontier of crime. So we’re just now becoming involved in the investigations of cyber crime on a large scale. Part of the reason for that is the losses that we’re seeing in for-profit cyber crime. And that’s one of the reasons why the Georgia Cyber Crime Center was created. We’ve seen especially in the past two years, from 2017 to 2018, a 62% increase in the amount of money that’s being lost because of cyber crime. 62%.

Brad Means: Unreal.

Steven Foster: It’s tremendous. So we’re in the hundreds of millions of dollars in Georgia alone, every year, that’s being lost to cyber crime. And these are you and me. These are-

Brad Means: It’s not huge corporations, only?

Steven Foster: It’s not, they’re targeting individuals, small businesses, specifically the elderly, those 60 years old and older. That’s the highest targeted community in cyber crime. So it’s this tremendous and growing problem that we have to address.

Brad Means: We touched on this on previous cyber specials of the Means Report, but just as a refresher, if you are 60 or older, what does that first attempt to steal from you look like?

Steven Foster: What we find is that 92% of all cyber crime starts with an email. So the email is the first step. That’s their ingress point. That’s the key that you give someone to come in and burglarize your house. And when you allow that to continue, you receive an email, it asks you to do a specific thing, either click on a link to go to a website to enter your credentials, to enter your username and password. Or click on an attachment. “I have a picture.“ “I have a file here that you need to see.“ Which is actually malware that gets installed on your computer.

Brad Means: Don’t open it.

Steven Foster: Don’t open it. And don’t go to the links that they offer because they’re probably fraudulent. And what we see now is attacks involving middlemen. Where they actually gain access to your email account so the victim is actually receiving an email directly from you and if you do business with them on a regular basis they’re used to getting an email from Brad Means. Now they’re received one, they trust it and they do whatever the email says do. So we’ve got to learn to be very skeptical about email. We’ve got to be able to shift the criminal’s perspective from email attacks against us to something else. Just because that has become such a lucrative tool for the criminal.

Brad Means: Let me ask you one more question about crypto currency? If a transaction occurs, I sell somebody weapons, they pay me in crypto currency, Bitcoin or otherwise, how do I take the proceeds from that sale and go pay my bills, buy a house. It’s not money is it?

Steven Foster: It’s not legal tender.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Steven Foster: But it is currency.

Brad Means: Can I only use it on the internet?

Steven Foster: No. In fact, there are government agencies now that you’re allowed to pay your taxes using Bitcoin.

Brad Means: Oh okay.

Steven Foster: You can actually go to several investment houses, large ones, and set up you investment portfolio in crypto currency. So it’s a legally traded medium. So you can use it. It has value.

Brad Means: Do you have to use dollars? I mean really, it’s baffling. Do you have to use actual money to buy Bitcoin?

Steven Foster: Yes.

Brad Means: Okay. Alright. That’s where it started. Here’s 10 thousand bucks. Thanks Brad, here’s 10 thousand worth of Bitcoin.

Steven Foster: Right.

Brad Means: Then you’re off and running.

Steven Foster: Absolutely.

Brad Means: Okay.

Steven Foster: And the way that there is no physical currency, with Bitcoin, it’s all digital.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Steven Foster: It’s all on the internet and you basically have to set up a digital wallet, so that your digital money can be held in that wallet and you have an encrypted key that allows you to move money in and out of your wallet.

Brad Means: I’ll tell you, this is the first time after saying Bitcoin on TV all these years that I’ve really grasped this. I mean I’m not embarrassed to say that and I’m sure a lot of viewers are the same, just finally learning what it is and how it works. Let me go back to kids. You talked about how they are groomed by bad guys on the internet. What about the damage that kids can do to themselves? I want to ask you about photographs that they put out there and think are harmless.

Steven Foster: Right. There are two areas of concern. One thing is, I do something on my device, my computer, my cellphone, things of that nature. I take a photograph, it’s here. How long is it here? Verus if it goes between me and you through the internet to get to you, how long is it everywhere else? There are things that I may be able to do to my cellphone to make sure that it goes away but once it leaves that cellphone and goes into the internet, it’s there forever. In one form or another, it’s there. And the photographs can move from person to person. They can be stored on servers. It can be divided a million different ways. Cloned and sent all around the world. Once it goes, it’s gone. It’s literally the genie out of the bottle. And for us as law enforcement, once it reaches that point it’s impossible to pull it back in.

Brad Means: I tell my children, “If you receive something, if you receive an image that is questionable, just don’t forward it.“ Is that good advice?

Steven Foster: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it is, report it to a parent, to a law enforcement, to a teacher, and delete it off of your device. Absolutely don’t forward it because then you get in a position where you are distributing the image. And if it’s a person of a certain age, it’s considered child pornography. Then you are in a situation where you’ve distributed child pornography.

Brad Means: Let me ask you this, and I’ll make sure my kids don’t watch this section of the interview. I also tell my children, “If you do forward it. A law enforcement officer will see you forward it he or she is at a computer andthey’ll red flag you right then.“ Can you do that?

Steven Foster: You can. Once that image is known to us then we know the source, the destination, what the content of that is and we have methodology that allows us to see where else that image has gone.

Brad Means: Oh good.

Steven Foster: So we can start to track that. So what typically happens, especially in a school setting, is an image is forwarded from one to another. And it’s like the old shampoo commercial about the two friends, then the two friends and it webs out. And then you have that material that’s everywhere.

Brad Means: Oh good.

Steven Foster: So the best is never forward it. Never send it to begin with. It’s tempting. They think it’s fun. But it leads to nothing but trouble.

Brad Means: It leads to nothing but trouble. But I’m going to continue to use that in my sermons to them. Probably my last question, Steven. And we talked about how the bad guys, unfortunately, because it’s a new frontier are always a couple of steps ahead of y’all. But you are making progress, aren’t you? You are making a dent in this cyber crime thing. Aren’t you?

Steven Foster: We are and I wanted to highlight what we’re doing here in Augusta. At the Georgia Cyber Crime, or the Cyber Center as a whole, you have something in Georgia, and I’m sure others have talked about it, that’s unique. We have academia. We have the university, Augusta University, Augusta Tech. The military is present at the campus. We have private industry there and as a first anywhere in the country you have a law enforcement component that’s there also. So that puts us in a position where we’re dealing with the researchers, the developers, the manufacturers and then us, and I say we come in when cyber security fails, when the attack has occurred, but you have us all in the same house. We’re under the same umbrella.

Brad Means: I love that.

Steven Foster: And it allows us to share information. And I don’t know that we have that in any other environment. Normally law enforcement works in our own little bubble. And we stay there. We receive information. We give information. But we do our own thing. In this environment, we’re doing our own thing but we’re doing it with everybody else. So I have access to all of those resources and they have access to us. I think of what we’re doing in technology is a bit of a cat and mouse game, when it comes to the criminal. But always tell people that you should feel good because we’re the cat.

Brad Means: I love it. It’s true and help if you need it is right down the hall

Steven Foster: Absolutely.

Brad Means: Or an elevator ride.

Steven Foster: Right.

Brad Means: Thanks for every thing you do. I appreciate it and I appreciate you time as well.

Steven Foster: Thank you, very much.

Brad Means: Yes sir. You’re welcome back any time. Steven Foster, special agent in charge with the GBI focusing on Georgia’s cyber crimes.

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Brad Means

The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.