International law enforcers have taken down several dark markets operating on hidden Tor networks and arrested 17 cyber crime suspects.
Operation Onymous involved law enforcement officers from 16 European states and the US in one of the biggest anti-cyber crime operations to date.
The operation was aimed at halting the sale, distribution and promotion of illegal and harmful items, including weapons and drugs through dark marketplaces online.
Operation Onymous was co-ordinated from Europol's European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) in The Hague and supported by the UK-led Joint Cybercrime Action Taskforce (J-Cat).
The J-Cat was created to serve as a platform for targeted operations against global criminal networks and infrastructure.
Operation Onymous is J-Cat’s second big success in just over a month of a six-month pilot, and comes just weeks after Operation Imperium, which resulted in 31 arrests and 42 house searches.
According to EC3, 410 hidden services were taken down, including the dark market Silk Road 2.0, while bitcoins worth approximately $1m in cash, drugs, gold and silver were seized.
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EC3 said the operation involved an unprecedented level of co-operation among law enforcement agencies and new techniques to track down the location of dark net servers.
"Today we have demonstrated that, together, we are able to efficiently remove vital criminal infrastructures that are supporting serious organised crime,” said Troels Oerting (pictured), head of EC3.
“We are not just removing these services from the open internet – this time we have also hit services on the dark net using Tor where, for a long time, criminals have considered themselves beyond reach.
“We can now show they are neither invisible nor untouchable. The criminals can run but they can't hide,” he said.
Tor, previously an acronym for The Onion Router, is a free network designed to anonymise actual internet-protocol (IP) addresses by routing traffic through many servers of the Tor network.
Tor is used by a variety of people for both illicit and licit purposes, a fact that has also been acknowledged in the complaint against Ross Ulbricht, accused of being the main administrator of the original Silk Road online marketplace.
Police in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK were involved in Operation Onymous.
Silk Road shut down
Among those arrested in the operation is Blake Benthall. He is believed to be behind Silk Road 2.0, which was set up after the original Silk Road site was shut down and Ross Ulbricht was arrested.
Six UK citizens were also arrested, including a 20-year-old man from Liverpool, a 19-year-old man from New Waltham, a 30-year-old-man from Cleethorpes and a man and woman, both aged 58, from Aberdovey, Wales, reports the BBC.
We can now show they are neither invisible nor untouchable. The criminals can run but they can't hide
Troels Oerting, EC3
All were interviewed and bailed according to the National Crime Agency.
Security researcher at Tripwire Craig Young said the operation shows law enforcement agencies have been very good at getting up to speed with modern cyber crime tactics.
“In the case of Silk Road 2.0, it appears the FBI was able to infiltrate the inner circle of the site’s administrative staff, thereby gaining access to communications and data allowing them to make a case against Blake Benthall – the alleged founder of the site,” he said.
This is a great example, said Young, of how 20th-century law enforcement tactics and undercover operations are still viable in the 21st century despite drastic changes to the criminal landscape.
He said the operation is also a demonstration law enforcement agencies can and will go after cyber criminals operating in the relative anonymity of the Tor network.