The story of Eric Eoin Marquis, which shows how the FBI is able to overcome the anonymity guaranteed by Tor, even if we do not know how.
Among the services that Freedom Hosting servers used were some completely legal (for example, Tor Mail or the Hidden Wiki encyclopedia), others – from HackBB hacker forums to money laundering services (including Onion Bank). But especially on those servers, some sites were used to share child pornography. And this is what has caught the attention of the FBI in enabling its IT resources to successfully break through what should be an impenetrable Tor network.
As MIT Tech’s researcher explains, “Tor is free software that allows any user to use the Internet anonymously, encrypting traffic and transferring it between different nodes to hide the user’s original connections. But who are the users of the dark network? Although over time it has become synonymous with illegal human trafficking, most people who use the dark network are citizens who want to avoid online tracking, people from poorly democratic countries trying to circumvent censorship, or Chinese dissidents trying to avoid surveillance.
It is obvious, however, that there are those who are hiding behind anonymity in order to conduct illicit trafficking. Among them was the real purpose of the FBI investigation: Eric Eoin Marquis, head of Freedom Hosting, was arrested in Ireland after the police installed one of the servers he used in France. A few days ago, Marquez pleaded guilty in court after a trial that lasted almost seven years, and now he faces a prison sentence of up to thirty years.
The Marquis was not the only major FBI target identified in 2013. Two months after its capture, the cult black market Silk Road was also closed during another operation led by the FBI. Having made hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sales, the Silk Road has become a symbol of the apparent invulnerability of criminals living in the dark web world reads a technical review always. Although this lasted less than three years, it was clear that its founder felt invincible. In the end, this anonymous person interviewed magazines such as Forbes and wrote political essays about his cause and ideology, which he supported.
Ross Ulbricht, the then 29-year-old who ruled the Silk Road, was also captured in 2013 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Since then, the FBI’s operations against Tor and the Dark Web have increased, which also led to the closure and arrest of the pedophile network, which operated under the guise of anonymity.
Is everything alright then? Not really. Because, although it is true that US law enforcement is becoming more sophisticated in terms of technology and can now hack any service, it’s also true that in most cases they are not going to tell people how they did what they did. What code in short did they use to successfully penetrate the dark network.
Marquis’s lawyers (and judges) received only vague details from the government: “The reason they are doing this blackout is because the methods used are legally questionable or may raise questions from the public,” explained Mark Ramold of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. An NGO works to protect online privacy. No matter how common this type of action is, I don’t think anyone will benefit from it.
Lawyers, of course, need to know how their protégés were determined and whether the means used were legal (and therefore not the fruit of a poisoned tree, as they are defined in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence). For example, in the case of Marquis’s arrest, some civil liberties associations, starting with the ACLU, have criticized the FBI for using this code as a grenade capable of bombarding the computers of thousands of completely innocent people.
“US government agencies routinely detect software vulnerabilities,” writes Patrick Howell O’Neill. Sometimes they disclose them to manufacturers, other times they decide to leave them for use as weapons or during investigations. But there is a formal process, which is used to decide whether a problem should be shared or not (…). The process in which disclosure is the default choice, assuming that any mistake that can hit the “bad guys” can also potentially be used against everyone’s interests. When an agency wants to use an error in an investigation, it must be approved, otherwise it will be published.
To give an idea of how important it is for government agencies to keep the methods used secret, it’s enough to say that in 2017 they preferred to clear all the charges of exploiting children on a dark network rather than finding out how they could identify the suspects. “We cannot live in a world where the government is allowed to use the black box technology from which important criminal prosecutions emerge,” explains Ramold of EFF. Defenders should be able to test and verify the methods used in the investigation.