It seems like the illegal marketplaces hosted on the dark Web are a technological hydra that creates more storefronts whenever the government manages to shut one down. That’s what happened after the FBI killed the first Silk Road, perhaps the most famous black market site around, and it looks like it’s happening again now that the site’s second iteration was seized.
Yes, there’s already a Silk Road 3.0, and chances are good that it will be followed by another iteration of the marketplace whenever the current one is taken down. And unlike the mythical hydra, which was finally slain when Hercules stopped lobbing off its heads and focused instead on its body, it’s not clear that the government can kill the infrastructure used by these sites.
Wired questioned the security of Tor, the anonymity tool that allows people to protect their communications and browse the dark Web, after it was revealed that Silk Road 2.0 was taken down alongside more than a dozen other black market sites. But the agencies responsible for the crackdown aren’t revealing how they did it, and Tor denies a problem with its network:
The organization that created and maintains Tor, the non-profit Tor project, said it didn’t have any more information on Operation Onymous’ techniques. But it downplayed the threat of a vulnerability in Tor’s safeguards for the tough-to-trace sites it protects known as Tor hidden services. ‘It sounds like old-fashioned police work continues to be effective,’ said Andrew Lewman. ‘It could be [that law enforcement targeted] common people or organizations running these hidden services, or a hosting company, or something more mundane than a hidden service exploit.’
It seems that “old-fashioned police work” did aid in the operation: Ars Technica reports that a Homeland Security Investigations agent infiltrated the site’s staff soon after it launched; the agent started receiving payments from Silk Road 2.0’s second-in-command and was trusted with information that allowed the government to seize the site and arrest its alleged operator.
Placing agents on the “staffs” of these illegal marketplaces could lead to many of them being shut down without requiring any access to the Tor network, which was said to have been able to throw off even the NSA’s efforts to compromise it, as the Guardian reported in October 2013. It had some success by attacking Tor users’ browsers and then monitoring their activities, but for the most part, there is no evidence that the world’s most popular anonymity tool is unsafe.
These sites are going to keep appearing, and they’re probably not going to stop. It’s not like decades of fighting drug sales outside of the dark Web have led to anything besides a terrifying police force, after all, and it’s clear that people want to be able to buy drugs online instead of on the street corner. (This might have something to do with the stated purity of drugs sold through these sites versus those sold in-person, which makes them both safer and far more effective.)
So unless there’s a fundamental flaw with Tor that hasn’t been noticed by its supporters, there’s little chance of the government getting in front of these sites and preventing them from selling millions of dollars worth of drugs, guns, and other illegal goods. It’s just going to keep cutting off heads, and in their places will be even more heads, with another version of Silk Road among them.
[art: Public Domain, Antonio del Pollaiolo]