A huge drug bust raises questions about dark web anonymity

Privacy news
3 mins
dark web arrests

This post was originally published on October 7, 2020.

The dark web is known for its illegal activity. But this part of the internet, which is often accessed with the Tor Browser and provides users with anonymity, is also a lifeline for whistleblowers, democratic reformers, journalists, and others needing to communicate covertly.

However, a recent international drug bust has cast doubt on just how anonymous dark web users can remain. The massive operation resulted in the arrest of 179 people in nine countries suspected of buying and selling illegal goods on various dark web platforms.

Code named Operation DisrupTor, the campaign involved agencies such as the FBI, the U.S.’s Homeland Security, German Federal Criminal Police, the Dutch National Police, and the UK’s National Crime Agency. Officials have declined to say what specific techniques they used to identify the suspects.

[Interested in the latest cybersecurity news? Sign up for the ExpressVPN Blog Newsletter].

The FBI’s description of the sting operation centers around a suburban neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. After agents stormed the property in question, they initially discovered 50 pounds of methamphetamine and containers full of thousands of Adderall pills. A second search uncovered another massive stash. In total, over 100 pounds of methamphetamine and 30,000 pills were confiscated, with a street value of several million dollars.

“Your anonymous activity is not anonymous”

Operation DisrupTor started in 2019, shortly after law enforcement agencies took down Wall Street Market, the largest dark-web marketplace at the time, which sold drugs, counterfeit goods, and hacking software to over a million customers.

The arrests amid the takedown of Wall Street Market helped detectives identify additional dark-web traffickers spread across Europe and the U.S. Out of the total 179 recent arrests, 121 were residents of the U.S., 42 in Germany, eight in the Netherlands, four in the UK, three in Austria and one in Sweden. Also seized was 6.5 million USD in cash and cryptocurrencies as well as 63 firearms.

“Law enforcement is most effective when working together, and today’s announcement sends a strong message to criminals selling or buying illicit goods on the dark web: The hidden internet is no longer hidden, and your anonymous activity is not anonymous,” said Edvardas Sileris, the head of European Cybercrime Center at law enforcement agency Europol.

Even though accessing darknets through the Tor Browser is meant to keep you encrypted and anonymous online, special investigators at the FBI insist there are vulnerabilities that they can exploit to catch criminals. These come into play when a transaction is agreed upon, paid through cryptocurrencies, and then has to be fulfilled offline.

“People think cryptocurrency is this anonymous platform, but there are things we can exploit to find out who people are,” said Homeland Security Investigations’ special agent Christopher Hicks. “It’s not truly anonymous […] Even if you’re getting stuff shipped to a post office box under a fake name, you have to open that mailbox. You have to touch that package.”

Implications for journalists and whistleblowers

Strictly speaking, when you access the dark web through the Tor browser, your web activity is encrypted and your identity remains anonymous. However, everyone you communicate with on the platform is similarly anonymous—and might not be the person you assume they are.

Law enforcement authorities have long impersonated drug dealers and weapons buyers on the dark web in order to catch criminals. In one case, undercover agents were able to get access to an administrator account for Silk Road, the original dark web marketplace. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have also exploited vulnerabilities in Tor to learn the IP addresses of dark web users.

You might argue that users should simply not disclose anything that identifies them to others and take extreme precautions to guard their identities. While that’s fair, it’s not always possible for all covert activity to take place online. For whistleblowers, activists, and journalists, it’s usually necessary to meet with sources offline or try to arrange a rendezvous with an intermediary to hand over documents, for example. For those whose lives are under threat, the dark web is a place to establish first contact with someone whom you hope can secure safe passage to another location.

And if the FBI is catching criminals on the dark web, you can be assured that repressive, authoritarian regimes are seeking ways to counter dissident behavior on these anonymous networks, too. The threat to activists becomes even more concerning here, as such countries have weak and poorly-enforced laws when it comes to human rights or access to a fair judicial hearing.

The dark web doesn’t guarantee trust by any stretch of the imagination. And it’s likely that we’ll see further attempts to erode its anonymization.

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.