Federal and international authorities have just closed down a massive Internet drugs and weapons operation - and some 400 other so-called “dark net” websites.
For nearly a year, Internet users who knew how to gain access to a special hidden website could shop for drugs, false identification documents, Internet hacking tools and illicit goods.
The criminal operation came crashing down earlier this month when the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and two European entities - Europol and Eurojust - shut down the site known as “Silk Road 2.0.”
Its operator, Blake Benthall, 26, of San Francisco, California, was arrested and faces four criminal counts.
Benthall, who went by the nickname “Defcon,” is charged with conspiracy to commit narcotics trafficking, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic in fraudulent identification documents, and conspiracy to engage in money laundering. If convicted, he could spend decades in prison.
$96 million in transactions
The FBI said Silk Road 2.0 had about 150,000 users who transacted some $96 million in drug and other sales during its 12-month existence.
Seventeen Internet site administrators and service vendors were also arrested and face varying charges.
Authorities also seized over $1 million worth of “bitcoin” - a form of digital currency, 180,000 Euros in cash, and quantities of drugs, gold and silver.
Included in the investigation known as “Operation Onymous” was the shutdown of more than 400 dark Internet sites, ones that operated on the Tor network, which makes users anonymous through special routers disguising origins.
Dark net sites are part of a larger section of the Internet known as “Deep Web” that includes many sites either hidden from view or not searchable through standard search engines, such as Google.
Tor describes itself as “a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. ... Tor provides the foundation for a range of applications that allow organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy.”
Author Rob Price, writing in the Business Insider’s "Daily Dot," reported that the servers on which Silk Road 2.0 operated were located in Lithuania. Price wrote that these servers led authorities to Benthall.
“ 'Defcon,’ a.k.a. Blake Benthall,” he wrote, “made no real attempt to hide his identity, registering the servers to the e-mail address ‘email@example.com.’ ”
Federal officials also said they identified Benthall as Silk Road 2.0’s purveyor through an inside informant.
In the federal complaint against Benthall, authorities said “a HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] agent acting in an undercover capacity, successfully infiltrated the support staff involved in running the Silk Road 2.0 website, and was provided access to private areas of the website available to Blake Benthall, the defendant, and his administrative staff. In that role, the HSI [agent] regularly interacted directly with Blake Benthall.”
As of November 6, Internet users trying to access Silk Road 2.0 were greeted not by its iconic “nomad on a camel” image, but, instead, by this:
Authorities said Benthall started Silk Road 2.0 after another drugs and other contraband Internet marketplace, the original “Silk Road,” was shut down by authorities in October 2013.
The first Silk Road began operations in February 2011, run by Ross William Ulbricht, who went by the moniker “Dread Pirate Roberts.”
The original Silk Road site is believed to have trafficked in $1.2 billion worth of drugs and weapons during its 2.5- year lifespan.
Ulbricht, who has entered not guilty pleas to all charges, is scheduled to face trial in January.
Benthall’s Silk Road 2.0 had features similar to legitimate shopping websites, such as pages with products, and descriptions and prices for quantity of drugs or other contraband. The final transaction was processed through 2.0’s bitcoin payment system.
Bitcoin is not a traditional currency. However, it can function as a currency to facilitate transactions internationally, especially over the Internet.
However, bitcoins are traceable by investigators, explained Peter Van Valkenburgh, director of research at Coin Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy center focused on crypto-currencies.
'Bitcoin leaves a paper trail'
“Unlike real cash, bitcoin leaves a paper trail. Bitcoin has a ledger, called the block chain, that lists all transactions across the network,” Van Valkenburgh told VOA.
“It's pseudonymous so your name isn't there, but a unique address made of numbers and letters is," he said. "And investigators can track funds moving in and out of that address until they find a link in the transaction history that they can identify, like when you bought the bitcoins on an exchange using a credit card, or bought something with the same bitcoin address on a website that wasn't part of the dark net - like Overstock.com - where your IP Address or other personal identifying information could have been recorded.”
One lawmaker who wants robust federal action to shut down the dark net and its illicit sites is New York Senator Charles Schumer.
Schumer sent a letter in October to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding increasing oversight on technologies that make the dark net possible.
Schumer has also called on the U.S. Justice Department to step up its efforts against the drug trade.
Drug and other illegal sales on the dark net continue nearly unabated.
In an article appearing on Vice.com on November 7, writer Mike Power wrote: “Long term, this bust [shutting down Silk Road 2.0] makes no difference. A new .onion website will be online in a few days, selling drugs to anyone who wants them. … In fact, there are dozens online already.”