It took a long time and the invention of some new forms of detective work, but the concerted effort of the world’s security, narcotics, and cyber-crime police departments were finally able to take down Silk Road, the flagship of a rather fringe online anarchist movement. That might seem like damning their achievements with faint praise, but if law enforcement wants to remain effective going forward it’s vitally important that it adjust its abilities and processes now — and its reputation, too. With the fall of Dread Pirate Roberts and the Silk Road, the denizens of the Deep Web lost the ability to fool themselves into thinking that they are beyond the reach of the law.
Up until recently, there was a sense of security below the surface of the Deep Web, an assumption that with a bit of vigilance any online action could be invulnerable the law. The Tor browser lets users access and even host websites anonymously, Bitcoins allow payment, and an ever-more efficient global postage system will even deliver. Whether you’re looking to buy card copying hardware or zip files full of credit card numbers, bags of cocaine or the services of an ex-military contractor, the Deep Web provided a way to get it, and get away with it.
That is, until now. A major child porn bust in August ignited renewed controversy over just how safe the Deep Web really was. Did the NSA and FBI have Tor-defeating Trojans implanted on thousands of computers? People considered it a possibility, and worried about the basic validity of the Deep Web. These were ultimately child pornographers, however, and their downfall had a muted impact because, quite simply, people hated them. Besides, a bunch of perverts certainly couldn’t aspire to the same levels of security as real criminals, like the ones at the Silk Road.
Today, not only has the Silk Road been shut down and its alleged founder arrested, but now the authorities are beginning to arrest some of the market’s biggest and most profitable sellers. In an announcement earlier this week, the FBI named the first alleged drug dealer nabbed for his traffic over the Silk Road. Known as NOD, along with three alleged co-conspirators, the seller was a big fish, and an important second blow to a community consoling itself that the worst was surely over. In the last few days, a total of eight Silk Road users have been arrested, mostly in the UK and Sweden.
However, despite the relative chaos that’s setting in as several me-too Silk Road replacements spring up and the site’s users either flee or double down on security measures, things could be worse for Tor. After all, it was the FBI’s own internal documents that expressed frustration that Tor was so secure. As we know from various government documents relating to the case, Ross Ulbricht was felled by old-fashioned detective work and an accumulation of small personal mistakes. It seems that NOD was a victim of the same.
Ross Ulbricht was undone mostly by police doing some fairly rudimentary online investigating into his above-ground actions, including those promoting the Silk Road itself. He need not have been caught, but a series of obvious mistakes connected his online persona to the real one. For NOD, the mistake was in using PO boxes in a predictable name, as random mail inspection led one enthusiastic investigator from a $ 3200 package of cocaine back to its seller.
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