The Silk Road arrests, and why users should be worried

  • Although the NSA won’t be able to de-anonymise all Tor users all of the time, it has its hand on the servers
  • The Silk Road servers showed some 957,079 registered user accounts; those people should be nervous

The Silk Road arrests, and why users should be worriedEIGHT more people have been arrested in the wake of the shutdown of Silk Road, the online, illegal-drug bazaar.
Keith Bristow, Director General of the UK's newly established National Crime Agency (NCA), said in a statement that there are more arrests in the works.
Of the eight suspects, four were arrested in the United Kingdom, one in Sweden, and three in the United States.
The British suspects, arrested within hours of the FBI having collared the suspected mastermind behind Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, included one man in his early 50s from Devon and three in their early 20s from Manchester.
NPR reports that US authorities have also charged two people in Bellevue, Washington, after identifying one of them as a top seller on Silk Road. He was arrested on Oct 2, and his alleged accomplice turned herself in the next day.
In Sweden, another two men – one 29-year-old, the other 34 – from the coastal city of Helsingborg were arrested on suspicion of distributing cannabis over Silk Road, the local Helsingborgs Dagblad reported on Tuesday.
The Swedish newspaper didn't mention the date of the two men's capture, but most, if not all, of the eight arrests took place within days of last week's arrest of Ulbricht, who was taken into custody at a public library in San Francisco.
In an affidavit filed in connection with Ulbricht's arrest, the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) said last week that it had located multiple servers, both within and outside of the United States, associated with Silk Road's operation, including the server that hosted the site.
Unraveling the network of drug dealers and consumers on the marketplace is presumably going to take some time, given the volume of its user accounts.
As of July 23, 2013, the server showed some 957,079 registered user accounts, the FBI says.
That number doesn't necessarily correspond to actual users, given that some may have multiple accounts, but the FBI agent who filed the affidavit said that the number points to hundreds of thousands of unique visitors.
Those people should be nervous.
Nicholas Weaver, a researcher with the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley and the University of California, in San Diego, told NPR that Silk Road's eBay-like customer review system means that law enforcement now has its hands on months' worth of sales records, all easily traceable, given the nature of the Bitcoin transfers on which Silk Road ran its billion-dollar operations.
Law enforcement said that the now-shuttered Silk Road was one of the world's largest online markets for illegal drugs, branding itself an ‘anonymous marketplace’ because users accessed the site through the Deep Web – aka the Darknet or Hidden Web.
Users accessed that Deep Web via Tor – the anonymising network that, as recent Edward Snowden revelations have shown, works well enough to irk surveillance experts.
But even though the NSA, to quote the "Tor Stinks" presentation published by The Guardian recently, "will never be able to de-anonymise all Tor users all of the time," in this case, law enforcement has its hands on the servers that allow it to do just that with Silk Road buyers and drug dealers.
As the NCA's Bristow warned, users shouldn't buy into Silk Road's promise of hiding their identity on the Internet.
Lisa Vaas has been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. She rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash and joined the freelancer economy. This article first appeared on the Sophos Naked Security blog and is reprinted with its kind permission.
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