Monday, November 10, 2014

Dark market massacre: FBI shuts down Silk Road 2.0 and dozens more Tor websites

The Shut-downs

A large-scale bust by the FBI and the UK’s National Crime Association has resulted in the arrest of 17 individuals in several countries, and the shut down of more than 25 other .onion (Tor) websites — including the darknet’s Grand Poobah, the Silk Road 2.0. [Note: The FBI originally reported that it had downed more than 400 sites, but this has since been replaced with a drastically lower number.] An incomplete record of the investigation is creating wild speculation about the FBI’s Tor-cracking technologies, but while there are still questions about how exactly the Bureau located a few key servers, a potential Tor-cracking technology is not the only possible explanation for these raids. Former SpaceX engineer and avid web developer Blake Benthall has been charged with running the Silk Road 2, and if guilty it seems he went down for the exact same reason as mild-mannered coder Ross Ulbricht before him: he was stupid.

It’s entirely possible that the FBI made use of some unknown (perhaps even questionably legal) technology in the course of this darknet meta-bust, but they don’t need to break Tor’s anonymity when its users break it themselves. Simple IP look-ups and subpoenaed registry info did most of the computer work in this case, while the Silk Road 2 server was finally confirmed because the cops could watch the market go down during an investigative attack on that server. The emerging narrative for Benthall and the Silk Road 2.0 is much the same as for Ulbricht and the original: the server eventually found to be hosting the Silk Road 2 was registered to (literally) And, like Ulbricht before him, the carelessness bled into his non-criminal life as well.

These online kingpins go by names like Dread Pirate Roberts and Defcon, aliases that exalt the anti-establishment hacker mentality, but even remembering alleged attempts at assassination these clearly aren’t the sociopathic personalities who might be able to live the double-lives they need to. Benthall did things like put $70,000 worth of Bitcoins toward a Tesla Model S and retweet positive sentiments about the reborn Silk Road — not inherently illegal acts of course, but still almost incomprehensibly dumb. I’m writing about dark/deep web markets right now, for instance, but probably wouldn’t if I actually ran one. Both Ulbricht and Benthall had social media presences that spoke about things like Tor and Bitcoin, along with openly held views on related social and political issues. These are categorically not the sort of people who could ever successfully run a dark market in the face of a real federal investigation.

When Ulbricht was arrested, his mom started an online innocence campaign for her little baby; the FBI accuses Benthall of running the Silk Road 2 in his spare time, and many are already beginning to point out his high-brow professional success and history of charity work. The Washington Post published one of several condemnations of the raid, expressing the common idea that online drug markets are inherently less harmful than those in the real world. They say that the drug purity is more reliable, the transactions are safer, and anonymity (usually) makes it impossible for violence to become a factor — so why not focus on the real world dealers involved in violence?

Left, a man whose alleged alias called out to nuclear destruction. Right, a brutal and widely feared pirate.

There are a whole host of reasons, ranging from the natural public fear of all things new, to the particularly juicy targets presented by criminal honeypots like the Silk Road. Still, I think it essentially boils down to this: the dark markets ask to be taken down. The teen-style rebelliousness that drives the majority of dark markets and even many individual sellers leads them to post taunting messages to law enforcement and advertise their services on Twitter and other clearnet services. They use dumb phrases like “We rise again” and brand themselves with scary or familiar names that directly imply that the war on e-drugs should continue without interruption. They work to make the markets more centralized and monolithic, easier to crack and much easier to demonize.

This must have been eerily familiar to patrons of the old Silk Road.

These are an explicit challenge to the FBI — ones that the bureau simply can’t afford to ignore — and they give ammunition and energy to the truly overzealous subgroup within the larger war on drugs. If you don’t want to FBI to develop Tor-breaking worms, stop doing virtually everything imaginable to require that they do so. (To be fair however, the NSA probably has concurrent efforts ongoing, regardless.) The FBI gave this case the mocking name of Operation Onymous — they are coming to this fight with renewed vigor and the exactly the sort of nihilist good-humor they need. It’s bringing them great success.

Each dark market is going to have to pick and declare a side: are they an anarchist’s NGO committed to social change via mail-order MDMA and pissy blog posts — or are they a service provider concerned with protecting themselves and their customers while making money and subverting what they see as unjust laws? It’s increasingly obvious that it’s impossible to truly be both. Law enforcement is beginning to sprint forward in the anonymity arms race, and the dark markets are giving them more energy and a real appeal to the public interest. They can wail all they’d like; with so much public disdain for the war on drugs, and so much technology offering an easy, heads-down solution, their inability to escape the FBI’s focused, highly effective attention is nobody’s fault but their own.

Source: ExtremeTech

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