Silk Road 2.0 Shutdown Raises More Questions About Online Anonymity

Silk Road DEA Agent

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NEW YORK (InsideBitcoins) — Last Week, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer made a renewed call for shutting down various darknet marketplaces where illegal drugs can be bought and sold over the Internet. It seems that he did not have to wait too long for his wish to come true. Exactly one year following its launch, the domain for Silk Road 2.0 has been seized through a joint effort between the FBI and Europol.

Following a report of the arrest of an alleged digital drug kingpin in Ireland earlier this morning, the FBI has now announced the arrest of Blake Benthall in San Francisco, via Twitter. Benthall is the alleged operated of Silk Road’s reincarnation that was launched on November 6, 2013.

“We don’t get tired”

The Silk Road 2.0 seizure followed an unusual period of downtime for the darknet marketplace, and we’re now also seeing a similar story with other marketplaces that can only be accessed via Tor. In a press release on the matter directly from the FBI, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara claimed, “Let’s be clear – this Silk Road, in whatever form, is the road to prison. Those looking to follow in the footsteps of alleged cybercriminals should understand that we will return as many times as necessary to shut down noxious online criminal bazaars. We don’t get tired.”

What does this mean for online anonymity?

Another interesting quote in the press release came from FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge George Venizelos. He stated, “Benthall should have known that those who hide behind the keyboard will ultimately be found.” At this point, there is still no direct evidence that the anonymity network known as Tor is broken. Much like in the case against Ross Ulbricht, various law enforcement agencies are claiming that traditional police tactics were used to take down these online drug bazaars.

In the matter of the Silk Road 2.0 shutdown, it appears that a Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agent was able to infiltrate Benthall’s inner circle. Although the complaint filed in a Manhattan court notes that the HSI agent was able to interact with Benthall “directly”, there is no mention of how his true identity was eventually found out. The complaint also mentions a co-conspirator who was involved with the initial launch of Silk Road 2.0, but it is unclear if charges have also been filed against that individual.

Parallel construction

During the cases of various darknet marketplaces, the idea of parallel construction playing a role in de-anonymizing the site operators has been mentioned more than once. In the case of the original Silk Road’s operator, many network security experts seem to believe that the FBI is not being forthcoming about how they determined that Ross Ulbricht was the one behind the world’s first major digital drug bazaar. Parallel construction is a method used by various law enforcement agencies to conceal the true source of information that eventually lead to an arrest. It was first reported in 2013 by Reuters in cases where the NSA was feeding information about specific individuals to the DEA.

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