On 6 November 2014, law enforcement agencies from 17 countries and over 40 digital investigators collaborated on one of the largest dark web enforcement actions to date. This was known as ‘Operation Onymous’. Up to 50 illicit online websites based on the TOR network were deactivated and closed and more than 400 hidden services were seized. Preet Bharara, the United States attorney, whose office announced the operation said that this was “the largest law enforcement action to date against criminal websites operating on the Tor network,”
The Dark Web
The TOR software, (TOR, an acronym for ‘The Onion Router’, emphasising the many layers of encryption to the platform), colloquially christened the ‘Dark Web’ or ‘Deep Web’, was pioneered in 2002 by the US Navy for protecting government communications. Today, the dark web is used by whistle blowers and activists but is better known for the sale of counterfeit money, weapons, drugs and child pornography.
In 2001, the American academic and CEO of BrightPoint, Mike Bergman stated that he believed that the dark web was approximately 400 to 550 times larger than the commonly regular world wide web or ‘Surface Web’. Further, he believed that normal internet searches were searching only 0.03% of the total web pages available. The internet, in all aspects, has developed significantly since then. This statement was made before Facebook and Youtube were invented and in that same year, iTunes and Wikipedia were released to the public.
In February 2009, Google added the one trillionth address to the list of Web pages it knows about. Beyond those trillion websites exists the dark web whereby huge volumes of data detailing, supplying and surveying every imaginable detail and service are stored in databases that remain largely invisible to search engines such as Google. 13 years on from Mr Bergman’s White Paper, the dark web has grown darker, and exponentially bigger.
As of the 6 November 2014, the words "This hidden site has been seized" are now displayed across the front of the Silk Road 2.0 and other such sites. Silk Road 2.0, the reincarnation of its predecessor ‘The Silk Road’ (which was closed in November 2013), was the largest online bazaar of illegal drugs and other such vices on the internet. The site’s founder, Blake Benthall (under his alias ‘Defcon’) was arrested and the 26 year old San Franciscan was charged in a Manhattan Federal Court with conspiracy to traffic in controlled substances, conspiracy to traffic in fraudulent identifications, money laundering, computer hacking and a long list of other offences linked to the site. Authorities claim the site had about 150,000 monthly active users; listings for over 13,000 items including psychedelics, cannabis, ecstasy and opiates; earning up to US$8m a month in bitcoin drug sales and Blenthall was making US$400,000 in monthly commission.
At the same time as US authorities were arresting Benthall, European authorities arrested at least 16 other people in countries such as France, Germany, Spain, Britain and Ireland (two men in their 30’s were arrested in Dublin and approximately €200,000 worth of drugs were confiscated) under Operation Onymous. Other sites such as Hydra, Cloud Nine, Pandora, Blue Sky, Mr. Quid’s Forum and Cannabis Road Markets have also been shut down according to Europol.
Sites such as the Silk Road create an extremely difficult problem for law enforcement authorities. The sites are run on platforms such as the TOR network. These networks are linked globally through special browsers that encrypt internet traffic and make it almost impossible to identify the parties involved. The buyers and sellers deal in digital/crypto currencies such as bitcoin which are often untraceable. Therefore, there are no transaction or banking records. These sites are instantly movable and can adapt to take account of any new methods known to be used by the authorities. Interestingly, in Benthall’s case, it was not those systematic strengths that failed but their administration. It seems that the US authorities discovered his identity due to a basic error. It is alleged that he registered the server for the site using a personal email address.
On Friday 7 November, one day after Operation Onymous’s successful arrests, a website calling itself ‘Silk Road 3.0’ appeared on the TOR network claiming to be open for business. This underlines the difficulties which exist for authorities internationally. The Silk Road was run by a man in San Francisco from servers in Iceland and Silk Road 2.0 in an undisclosed foreign country, also by a man in San Francisco. It is possible that this new embodiment could originate from any corner on the globe. New decentralized markets like The Silk Road continue to be created.
It was made abundantly clear by authorities in Europe, the US and elsewhere that they intend to continue this fight over the long term. Over 400 websites are set to be raided under Operation Onymous.
Following these events, Troels Oerting, Head of Europol’s EC3 (European Cybercrime Centre) Cyber Crime Unit said:
"We are not just removing these services from the open Internet… This time we have also hit services on the Darknet using TOR where, for a long time, criminals have considered themselves beyond reach. We can now show that they are neither invisible nor untouchable. The criminals can run but they can’t hide. And our work continues."
This fight against the dark web has many of the hallmarks of an unwinnable battle, the type which international authorities have been struggling with for decades. These exist in both the physical world such as illegal drugs and the online world, such as music piracy. It remains to be seen whether this fight will have the longevity of those comparable struggles.