Since the seizure and demise of the deep web drug bazaar, Silk Road, federal law enforcement has made monumental claims, concerning their aims to crack down on ‘darknet’-based crime. Silk Road largely operated through a web browser, which was originally developed by US Naval Intelligence, called Tor. It is a program that conceals the identities of its users through bouncing their information through a massive network of servers.
Once an operator appears on the other side of this network, his or her information is undistinguished, making it impossible to identify the operator. This means, that if law enforcement agencies wanted to crack down on crimes that originate from the darknet, then they have to know how to penetrate and surveil these kinds of networks.
According to an Oct 22 story from USA Today, Donna Leinwand Leger reports on the claims, made by upper echelons of British law enforcement:
“These arrests send a clear message to criminals: The hidden Internet isn’t hidden, and your anonymous activity isn’t anonymous. We know where you are, what you are doing and we will catch you,” Keith Bristow, director of Britain’s National Crime Agency, said after the arrest Oct. 8 of four men for alleged drug offenses.
The understanding that cooperating law enforcement agencies seem to be portraying is that they are making progress at monitoring the darknet. Leger writes in her opening paragraph:
“But a series of arrests this month, including the bust of the black market site Silk Road, shows the G-men have infiltrated the Internet’s back alley.”
However, recent reports suggest that law enforcement is still major strides away from cracking these deep web networks. Cyber crime experts, such as the head of the Australian chapter of the International Association of Cybercrime Prevention and executive chairman of the Internet Fraud Watchdog, Ken Gamble, are not convinced that law enforcement is any closer to their darknet surveillance objectives. On Oct 25, Iain Gillespie of the Sydney Morning Herald writes:
“Asked if law-enforcement bodies are making progress in tracking down the false IP addresses generated by Tor, Gamble replies with an emphatic ”no”. He says the only answer is for darknet law enforcement to be privatised.”
“Law-enforcement bodies can only operate within their own jurisdictions and enforce the laws that apply within their own countries. They will never win the battle against international cyber crime without bringing in private agencies to help.”
In fact, when Edward Snowden leaked classified information in the summer of 2013, documents revealed that even the NSA was not able to scratch the surface of the Tor network. While they may be able to do some investigative work, it takes massive amounts of resources and time to track a single individual. As for tracking the masses, even the NSA admits that they are not even close.
Even in the case of taking down Silk Road, the FBI was forced to use conventional, real-world methods, such as sting operations, informants, staged assassinations, and the physical seizure of servers. As for their claims on peeling back the ‘Onion Network’ of Tor, it may be more of a bluff than a promise.