U.S. and European law enforcement agencies Friday announced the largest strike ever against the Internet’s thriving black markets, shutting down more than 400 sites and arresting 17 people for allegedly selling drugs, weapons and illegal services to anonymous buyers worldwide.
The sites, with names such as “Hackintosh” and “Pablo Escobar Drug Store,” were found in England, Germany, France, Bulgaria, Spain and Switzerland, among other nations, according to Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency.
The sweep of the crackdown marked a new level of aggressiveness and coordination by Western governments determined to police shadowy corners of the Internet. Government evidence showed the shuttered sites were offering a remarkable range of illicit goods, from cocaine to counterfeit money to explosives.
Many once thought this trade was beyond the reach of police because the sites were accessible only through Tor, a service originally created by the U.S. government that directs Internet traffic through a succession of routers to hide the identities of users and the locations of servers. The ability of investigators to unmask the alleged operators of Tor sites sent shivers through those who use the service for more legitimate purposes, such as political activists, journalists and diplomats.
Several experts suggested that Tor’s ability to protect users and the locations of servers may have been compromised on a mass scale by sophisticated technological tools used by a coalition of Western law enforcement agencies that has been targeting what’s often called “The Dark Web.”
“There are no guarantees of anonymity,” said Steve Bellovin, a Columbia University computer science professor. “It’s clear that buying ⅛illicit goods⅜ on something like Tor is not as safe as people thought a year ago.”
The strike on the Dark Web — code named “Operation Onymous,” a word meaning the opposite of anonymous — began Wednesday with the arrest of a San Francisco man, Blake Benthall, for allegedly starting an online marketplace called Silk Road 2.0. The site began operations a year ago, a month after the FBI shut down a predecessor called Silk Road. He was charged with several felonies that could lead to lifelong imprisonment.
The action spread internationally Thursday and Friday as authorities in the United States and 16 European nations shut down 410 sites that were reachable through Tor and allowed anonymous transactions, typically using virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin, that were difficult for police to track. Police seized Bitcoins worth $1 million and $224,000 worth of Euros, along with drugs, gold and silver, authorities said.
“It is a plain fact that criminals use advanced technology to commit their crimes and conceal evidence — and they hide behind international borders so they can stymie law enforcement,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell in a statement. “But the global law enforcement community has innovated and collaborated to disrupt these ‘dark market’ websites, no matter how sophisticated or far-flung they have become.”
“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,” said Troels Oerting, head of the European Cybercrime Centre, part of Europol. “We can now show that they are neither invisible nor untouchable. The criminals can run, but they can’t hide. And our work continues.”
Tor — a name that began as an acronym for “The Onion Router” because it wrapped Internet traffic in protective layers of encryption to hide a user’s identity — was developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and is run by a nonprofit group that receives State Department funding.