A spate of arrests were recently made as a result of Operation Onymous, the latest in a series of covert operations to locate and shut down online marketplaces running on the Tor network. A widespread international bust, Operation Onymous resulted in the shutdown of 414 websites operating on layered VPNs, functioning dark markets like Silk Road, Cloud 9 and Hydra.
Silk Road started as an online black market most infamous for the sale of contraband like opiates, methadone, LSD, cocaine, heroin et al. This expanded, however, to include not just Class-A illegal substances and illegal contraband but ammunition as well. Silk Road’s sister site, The Armory, which did exactly that, was eventually shut down due to lack of consumer interest.
However, several similarly designed and functioning websites not only trade in contraband and ammunition but services such as murders-for-hire and contract killings.
Silk Road, in addition to being on the Deep Web and operating as a hidden service on Tor, also allows its customers to transact in the currently primary cryptocurrency, BitCoin. The use of Bitcoin, much like Tor, provides security, anonymity and ‘safety’ for its users. The major sell of both Tor and Bitcoin, in their respective categories, is the fact that each is untraceable and considered ‘safe’ from detection.
The cessation of this illegal activity and the apprehending of their perpetrators is doubtless crucial to maintaining law, order and citizen safety, and can thus be considered absolutely necessary.
However, Tor (and other VPNs) have certain crucial functions that are unrelated entirely to the sale/exchange of contraband, ammunition or other illegally acquired or sold goods. Several governments not only monitor but heavily censor the data citizens on the web can have access to. They provide privacy and a means to circumvent censorship, observation, snooping, government agency surveillance or even personal physical threat.
Providing a safe haven and the opportunity to protect one’s identity, Tor has long been used as a protective layer (pardon the pun) by whistleblowers looking to reveal data anonymously without fear of retribution; the most notable among these was Edward Snowden, who revealed to the Guardian and Washington Post details of the extensive monitoring and data surveillance by the NSA in America.
By several estimates and evidence, both physical and electronic, there is a significant number of people, and large amounts of money involved in dark markets online. Estimates placed Tor as having 4 million users [as of this article going to press]. US $1.2 billion in transactions are reported to have changed hands in the 2012-2013 year alone.
As part of Operation Onymous in 2014, $1 million in Bitcoin was seized, along with €180,000 in cash, gold, silver and drugs.
Silk Road did $1.2 billion worth of business between February of 2011 and July of 2013, the FBI says, earning Dread Pirate Roberts $79.8 million in commissions using current Bitcoin rates. That number is difficult to pin down, however, because Bitcoin’s price has fluctuated so much during that time. Silk Road had 957,079 registered users who made 1.2 million transactions between February of 2011 and July of 2013, the FBI says.
In even more shocking transactions, child sexual abuse imagery was shared and sold via dark markets, showing the darkest side of this dark market. Crime against children is heinous and needs immediate apprehension, and this may perhaps be an argument against the ability to have complete anonymity on the internet.
While apprehending crime is essential, especially in this case, where human life is jeopardised and large amounts of illicit substances and money are involved, several questions arise in the capture of the perpetrators of illicit sale on online markets; the first of these being the question of true anonymity.
There are several cases where circumventing, or attempting to circumvent government censorship/surveillance have had serious ramifications for the person involved. Onion routing is supposed to ensure that this is untraceable; but in this case, is it really serving its purpose? Whistleblowers have a much larger audience now that the world has become increasingly technologically involved across age, geography and socio-economic strata, and there is now more information on the internet than ever before. The question of anonymity, even via so-called ‘secure’ onion networks, also brings into question how safe we are on the internet; from data thieves, from other citizens, from surveillance agencies and our own governments. Censorship is a real worldwide risk, prevalent among many of the world’s developing, developed nations and superpowers.
The question now is, is it possible to strike a balance between stamping out internet-based crime and still providing an open, free internet with equal global access? In the current political climate, this may seem impossible, and for now, is possibly a reason to support access to onion networks, although the true anonymity of these networks is now itself in question.
Writer and communications professional by day, musician by night, Anuradha Santhanam is a former social scientist at the LSE. Her writing focuses on human rights, socioeconomics, technology, innovation and space, world politics and culture. A programmer herself, Anuradha has spent the past year studying and researching, among other things, data and technological governance. An amateur astronomer, she is also passionate about motorsport.
More of her writing is available here and she can be found on Twitter at @anumccartney.
(Image credit: Brian Klug)