x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Silk Road saga shows internet’s limitless potential for criminality

The Silk Road website – taken down roughly a month ago by the FBI – has resurfaced, proving how difficult it is to police the internet against even the most brazen criminal activity.

Just as legitimate businesses are using the internet to market their goods and services, dark websites now have access to a global market and are growing fast. istockphoto.com
Just as legitimate businesses are using the internet to market their goods and services, dark websites now have access to a global market and are growing fast. istockphoto.com

The continuing Silk Road saga is gradually revealing the true scale of the massive challenge the world’s authorities face in trying to police the internet.

The Silk Road website, taken down roughly a month ago by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), has resurfaced. Launched on November 5 as “Silk Road 2.0”, the website is back in business trading anything from small arms to heroin.

Although it is reported to have an annual turnover of about US$1 billion, Silk Road is not alone in offering a full criminal service to internet users. Other so-called “dark” websites such as BlackMarket Reloaded also offer illicit goods and services online.

The authorities appear powerless to halt crimes that would be relatively easy to detect and prosecute were they not committed over the internet. Using free software such as Tor, previously called The Onion Router, buyers and sellers of illegal goods are ensured anonymity when using Silk Road, widely referred to as “the eBay of drugs”. All transactions are conducted in Bitcoin, a digital currency that can also be used to facilitate anonymous online payments.

Just as legitimate businesses are using the internet to market their goods and services internationally, dark websites such as Silk Road now have access to a global market and are growing fast.

“Criminals have long recognised the value both of the internet and the ability to hide behind a technology-generated veil of anonymity,” says Alan Brill, the senior managing director of the security firm Kroll Advisory Solutions. “So it’s not surprising that a site like Silk Road is back.”

The FBI took down the Silk Road website on October 2, arrested the site’s alleged mastermind, Ross William Ulbrecht, known under the online pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts”, and seized $28 million worth of Bitcoin currency.

But someone else calling themselves Dread Pirate Roberts soon emerged on the internet, now claiming credit for launching Silk Road 2.0.

The Silk Road website administrators are named after a fictional character in the film The Princess Bride. Like his online namesake, the fictional Dread Pirate Roberts was not one man, but a series of individuals. The new Silk Road website now boasts that it “has risen from the ashes”.

What is now concerning governments and law enforcement agencies around the world is that, while it took a two-and-a-half year investigation by the FBI to bring down Silk Road, the website was up and running again within about a month.

Dark websites such as Silk Road are proving problematic to police as commonly available and extremely powerful encryption software ensures anonymity. Transactions taking place on Silk Road are conducted without recourse to conventional banking procedures or currencies, making them even harder to track.

“If you go back to the origins of the internet, it was never actually designed to provide security, authentication or objective identification,” says Mr Brill.

He adds that the software needed to conduct illicit activities such as drug dealing over the internet is constantly being modified so that criminals stay one step ahead of the authorities.

“While the ability to operate anonymously has always existed, there are continuous improvements in ways to do so. That’s why it can take investigators long periods to identify who is running a website or where they are,” says Mr Brill.

According to Rob Enderle, the principal analyst at the Enderle Group: “In the end, it is kind of like Whac-a-Mole – as soon as you shut down one site several others can pop up to replace it.”

There are even rumours circulating around the internet that the FBI itself set up Silk Road 2.0 to trap online criminals.

“There is a lot of speculation about whether this is real or a honeypot set up by the Feds to catch drug dealers,” says Mr Enderle.

But even in the seemingly unlikely event of the FBI selling illegal drugs online to entrap criminals, it is hard to see how the US authorities can effectively control the internet.

The US entertainment industry, for example, has found it impossible to prevent millions of people from sharing movies or music free online.

Downloading a pirated copy of a new album or an old film may sound innocuous enough when compared to selling heroin or guns over the internet, but digital copyright theft can carry a heavier sentence than third-degree manslaughter in some parts of the United States. Despite this, sites that offer illegal file sharing, such as Pirate Bay, have flourished.

“The web is a big complex and very convoluted place,” says Mr Enderle. “The media industry has been trying to shut down Pirate Bay for years, for instance. But if you search for it you’ll find it right at the top again.”

He adds that the global nature of the internet has enabled those running illicit websites to locate anywhere in the world, moving whenever authorities begin to reach them.

“Sites can be easily moved from server to server and from country to country, making it very difficult even for countries like China, which aggressively blocks sites they disagree with, to eliminate the websites, or even access to them,” says Mr Enderle.

“Laws in various countries provide loopholes. In Russia, it is legal to sell malware [malicious software] … The tool itself is legal although what you do with it may not be. And you have the Cayman Islands where it is legal to copy protected works and where some of the leading tools for doing just that are produced.”

The Web offers an almost limitless labyrinth by which to bypass any attempted legislation against piracy and the flow of illicit goods online.

“Where there’s a demand, there is usually someone prepared to provide a supply,” says Mr Brill. “The online world is no different.”

business@thenational.ae